Right now in Stockholm we are between the bird cherry and the lilac. This Swedish expression ‘Mellan hägg och syren’ is used to describe this short period between when these two bushes blossom. At the moment the bird cherry is blossoming, but not yet the lilac. The period reflects the early days of summer and for many Swedes it is the most delightful time of the year. A friend of mine nostalgically said yesterday that ‘it smells like end of school’.
So where does this expression come from? Well, the common theory is that it was first used by a cobbler who put a sign up in the window of his shop. He had decided to take a brief holiday, and the sign read ‘closed between the bird cherry and the lilac’.
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.
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.