A “Schlaumeier” is someone who is clever or cunning. Given that this expression is deployed more often than not in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, it is best to be on your guard if someone calls you a “Schlaumeier.”
In German, “schlau” means clever, whereas “Meier” is a common surname, like “Smith” in English. Back in the Middle Ages, a “Meier” was someone who administered the property of a noble or ecclesiastical landowner. They often worked on a “Meierhof” or “Meiergut” (farm or estate). Later, as regular folk acquired more property rights, a “Meier” was also an independent sharecropper or farmer. Similarly, a “Meierei” was a “Pachtgut” (leasehold) farm or a dairy, which is also known as a “Molkerei.
Somehow over the centuries the expression “Schlaumeier” evolved to mean a clever, cunning or crafty person. Somebody who believes they are particularly clever may, in this vein, be jokingly branded a “Schlaumeier.”
Synonyms for “Schlaumeier” include “Schlauberger,” “Schlaufuchs” (clever fox), and “Schlaukopf” (clever head). More critical synonyms might be “Angeber” (show-off), “Besserwisser” (know-it-all), “Intelligenzbestie” (intelligence ‘beast’) or – more colloquially – “Klugscheißer,” “Klugschnacker” or “Klugschwätzer” – all variations of what could essentially be defined as a kind of “know-it-all” teller of tall tales.
So “Schlaumeier” is usually a verbal imposter: This would-be compliment might more often than not be laced with a facetious undertone. Yet this expression is usually issued as a missive from one person to another in jest. So if someone exclaims in a teasing tone “Hey, du Schlaumeier du!” (Hey, you Schlaumeier you!), it could be interpreted as an exasperated or mocking term of endearment, especially when accompanied by a friendly pat on the back and a hearty chuckle.
A fun and oft-used related phrase in German is “Vereinsmeier” (Club-Meier). It pertains to Germans’ penchant for joining all sorts of clubs, such as athlectic clubs, gardening clubs or chess clubs. Germans like to get together in such clubs or associations (Vereine). Someone who, however, might be considerd to be too involved in too many such clubs, or take his or her involvement in such clubs just a tad too seriously, is often mockingly or derisively described as a “Vereinsmeier.”
Both “Schlaumeier” and “Vereinsmeier” are masculine nouns that are hardly ever used in a feminine form. Variations of the surname Meier, incidentally, include Maier, Mair, Mayer, Mayr, Meyer and Meyr.