“Old Swede, you've gotten so tall,” seems like an odd thing to say to a twelve-year-old German boy, but to Germans, “alter Schwede, bist du groß geworden,” makes total sense.
“Alter Schwede” is used as a term of surprise in Germany.
According to Dr. Anatol Stefanowitsch, a linguistics professor at the Free University in Berlin, the phrase is not definitively used by one particular age group, but you are more likely to hear an adult than a teenager or child exclaiming “Alter Schwede!”
While it is a term of surprise though, it is by no means a swearword.
“The phrase has no negative connotations,” Dr. Stefanowitsch told The Local. “Words like 'wow' or 'gosh' would be the closest English equivalents.”
In fact before “alter Schwede” became an expression of shock, it was widely used in the 19th and early 20th century as a term of respect and endearment.
Dr Stefanowitsch gives an example of an account from the 1800s of a man arriving at a guest house only to be greeted by the words, “Hallo, alter Schwede”. The man replied, “I am neither old nor a Swede!”, but he was quickly reassured that it meant “my good friend” or “dear fellow”.
Nowadays, you wouldn't exactly go around calling your mates old Swedes, but traces of the friendly and respectful nature of the phrase still remain. This means that, while you could use it to express surprise at something going wrong, the phrase itself holds no negative connotations.
But why an old Swede? Why not an old Norwegian or an old Dane?
There is speculation that the phrase emerged around the time of the 30 Years' War from 1618 to 1648. While Dr Stefaniwitsch warns that there's little way of knowing if this theory is strictly true, it makes for an interesting story.
During the 30 Years' War, Electorate Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg recruited experienced Swedish soldiers as instructors to the Prussian army.
These men were seasoned fighters and supposedly became well respected and liked by the German troops, earning the nickname 'alter Schwede'. After that it is speculated that the term trickled down into everyday civilian speech, evolving into a friendly and respectful way to address someone.
While this is a satisfyingly neat way for the phrase to have been born, it is also a possibility that the phrase emerged organically out of a fondness of the Swedish culture in Germany.
In other words, maybe Germans have just always really liked Sweden.
The two countries have a rich history of trade which has led to strong economic, political and cultural links between them. Even today Germany is Sweden's most significant trading partner, accounting for 17 percent of total Swedish imports and 10 percent of the Scandinavian county's total exports.
What's more, according to the German Foreign Office, until the Second World War, “Sweden looked to the German-speaking world culturally and linguistically,” meaning for a long time the most common second language in Sweden was actually German.
How “alter Schwede” developed from a way to address a friend to a term of surprise remains a mystery. But perhaps someday in response, the phrase “gamla tysk” (You old German) may catch on in Sweden.