Swedish expression: ‘to suspect owls in the moss’

In English, when we suspect something isn’t quite right we ‘smell a rat’. In Swedish, they suspect ‘owls in the moss’.

The expression – ‘att ana ugglor i mossen’ – has Danish origin. The original saying dates to the 1600’s and was ‘det är ulve i mosen’ which translates as ‘there’s a wolf in the moss’. The expression makes sense and was used when a dangerous situation was suspected.

So, how did a wolf turn into an owl? There are two theories. One theory is that it happened as a mistake. The sound of the Danish word for wolf ‘ulve’ was misheard as ‘uggla’ the word for owl – and the creature hiding in the moss became a wise bird rather than a viscous predator.

Another theory is that the saying was consciously changed when wolves disappeared from Denmark. The wolf was replaced by an owl because it hoots a warning at the presence of danger.

Swedish expression: ‘to walk like the cat around hot porridge’

Given the historical relationship between humans and cats, it’s not surprising that there are lots of expressions using the cat as a metaphor. ‘Att gå som katten runt het gröt’ literally translates as ’to walk like the cat around hot porridge’ and refers to the fact that a cat does not want to eat the porridge before it has cooled. But what does it mean as a saying?

The idiom was first documented in 1641 and means to avoid speaking or acting directly about something – to skim the periphery. The English equivalent is ‘to beat around the bush’, which is a hunting reference, or ‘pussyfooting about’ which also refers to the tentative nature of the cat’s gait.

Graphic by Andrea Johansson