In Swedish, this is a common phrase used to describe a situation where somebody has bought something without first fully examining it. And it proves to be a costly mistake. It’s also used to describe situations where somebody says yes to something without really knowing what it is – to their detriment. The expression ‘köpa grisen i säcken’ is the equivalent of the little-used English phrase ‘to buy a pig in a poke.’
But where does the expression come from?
Well, it dates back to the late Middle Ages when livestock was sold in the market places. Small animals were transported in sacks so as to make it easy to carry them. When you bought an animal, if you didn’t look in the sack, you might be in for a big surprise when you got home. You thought you bought a piglet, for example, but on opening the sack you realize it contains a rat or a cat.
It’s a bit like voting for a person or a party without fully understanding their politics and then being shocked afterwards. You really shouldn’t have bought that pig in the sack.
The Swedish train system is notorious for its lack of reliability and continuous delays. Anybody who travels by train in Sweden has probably called it stupid, or worse, in anger or frustration. However, this is not where the Swedish expression (you are) ‘more stupid than the train’ comes from.
To understand the origin of this expression, we have to travel to my home country of England and to the end of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1800’s the rail industry was booming and in 1856 Sweden imported a train from the UK, pictured above.
A Swedish tradition is to give names to trains, and this particular train was christened ‘Prince August’ after King Oskar I’s youngest son. Prince August was well-known across the country for not being the brightest light in the Christmas tree. His weak intellect was well referred to in stories of the time. This was a period in history, however, when open criticism of the Royal family borded upon treason. So, the people created an expression – more stupid than the train – to describe somebody’s idiocy while at the same time referring ‘discretely’ to the royal fool by referencing the train of the same name.
This tradition of naming trains, and train carriages, still exists in Sweden today. Only this morning I travelled in a carriage called Pippi, but I’m afraid it wasn’t much of an adventure. Here is a list of all the carriage names on the Stockholm underground – see if your is there!
I know, i know. It sounds gross doesn’t it? ‘Sweden’s politicians are slut spurting.’ However disgusting it might sound, it is exactly what they are doing.
With one week to go to the election, all the parties are in the final throws of their campaigning. In this final week, they try to get their message across by turning the gear up a bit. This final sprint to the finishing line is called a ‘slutspurt’ in Swedish. It’s often used to describe the final hurried days of a sale.
And it’s what they’re all doing.
They’re slut spurting on the tv, in the streets, in the media. It’ll be a relief when it’s all over I expect. That much spurting can’t be good for you.
Currently there’s a lot of election campaigning going on in Sweden. In a couple of weeks, Swedes will decide who they would like to have in their government. It’s a bit of a nail-biter as the established parties are waning in popularity and the far-right populist party is gaining ground. Time will tell how the public votes. But in the meantime, let’s have a little lesson in Swedish election language. The Swedish word for election is ‘val’, which also means choice and also means whale. The word ‘val’ appears in front of lots of words in election times. Here are a selection of my personal favourites that I’ve spotted in the media:
- Valbråk – ‘election fight’ – some kind of conflict that arises in association with an election. It can be connected to posters or pamphlets or anything that gets people agitated, often by making populistic ‘vallöfte’
- Valfläsk – ‘election pork’ – a weird one, describing the hyperbole, the bullshit and the exaggerated claims made at the time of elections
- Valfusk – ‘election cheating’ – used to describe corruption in relation to an election
- Vallöfte – ‘election promise’ – what the party promises, and more often than not fails to deliver
- Valstuga – ‘election cottage’ – small wooden houses on a public square where representatives from each party stand and represent their policies
- Valspurt – ‘election spurt’ – nothing saucy, but rather a word to describe the escalating final run up to voting day
- Valchock – ‘election shock’ – an unexpected result, rather like Brexit or Trump and perhaps what we are heading for in Sweden in a couple of weeks’ time.
Do you have any other any other election words that particularly amuse you?
If a Swede says to you ‘ta det piano’ – take it piano – what they mean is take it easy, go slow often to avoid any mistakes. They can also say ‘it’s piano’ which means everything is cool, calm, ok.
Researching the origin of this expression led me, not surprisingly, to the world of music.
The word ‘piano’ has two meanings – firstly the string instrument with its variety of keys.
Secondly, it is a musical term for ‘weak’ or ‘soft’. In sheet music, the letter ‘p’ indicates piano and tells the musician to play their instrument softly. Double ‘pp’ means pianissimo and indicates to play very softly.
The term ‘piano’ originates in Italian and has been in use in Sweden since the 1600’s.
In Swedish, when you have landed yourself in trouble, or made a fool of yourself, you can use the delightful expression ‘shit in the blue cupboard’.
Example: ‘oh no, Edward really has shit in the blue cupboard now’.
So where does this originate? After some exploration, I have discovered what is recognised as the most likely explanation.
Centuries ago in Sweden, furniture was painted red and okra as this colour was cheap and easy to produce. Around the 1800’s new production methods enabled the production of blue paint – Berlin blue – and this was more expensive and seen as more exclusive. Consequently, people used this colour to paint the cupboard where they kept their finer pieces of porcelain, silver and linens.
In these times, the population used potties to go to the toilet in. Putting the potty into the blue cupboard, amongst the finer articles, was seen as a really stupid thing to do. And so the expression developed in relation to foolish acts.
There’s an expression in Swedish that I’ve often wondered about where it comes from. The expression – ‘pang på rödbetan‘ – bang on the beetroot. It’s a weird idiomatic expression that in its earlier meaning, referred to getting straight down to penetrative sex without any foreplay. However, today it is used to describe any situation in which we get straight down to it, for example in a meeting, in a discussion, in a conflict.
The ‘pang på’ is easy to understand as it means straight forward or slap-bang. But where does the beetroot come from?
Well, according to a common theory, it originated from the word ‘robota’ in Polish. This word came with temporary labourers to southern Sweden in the 1800’s and was Swedified by the locals. The expression ‘pang på rödbeta’ was used in Sweden’s southern Skåne region already in the 1900’s. So what does the word ‘robota’ mean? Well, it is defined as hard work, repetitive work and routine work.
So ‘pang på robata’ – getting straight down to hard work.
Interestingly, the word ‘robata’ is also the origin of the word ‘robot’ – something that does repetitive, routine work.