As weird as this saying is, it’s quite a common one used by Swedes. Obviously describing a troublesome, embarrassing situation, it would equate in English to something like ‘to be caught with your hand in the cookie jar’ or ‘caught with your trousers down’. In other words, to find yourself in a difficult situation of your own making.
But where does the expression come from?
One common theory is that it is from a 1959 book called Bitter Pills. The Swedish translator translated the English ‘who will get hurt’ to ‘who will sit with their beard in the letterbox’. Rather an odd translation one might think but actually it was rather a clever one.
The translator based his expression on a nautical saying at that time – ‘to fasten with your beard in the block’. Apparently a block is a wheel that mooring lines run through on a boat. I guess it would be very unfortunate for a sailor to get their beard caught in it while wrestling with a wild boat. The theory is that the translator wanted to modernize the expression, and use a bit of humour. So block became letter box. The expression can also be ‘to fasten with your beard in the letter box’.
Ask people to think about Sweden and invariably they will say IKEA. The massive flat-pack corporation has world dominance when it comes to home furnishings. However, in Germany, Swedish curtains are not necessary an attractive option.
To be ‘hinter schwedischen Gardinen’ (behind Swedish curtains) in colloquial German means to be in prison.
Not entirely sure of the reason but one theory is as follows:
German bars used to be made from strong Swedish steel, as they were particularly strong and escape-proof. When the bars formed a grille, they became the kind of ‘curtain’ that you don’t want to be behind!
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Unfortunately I can’t speak Spanish very well. However, I have heard a phrase in Spanish that is somewhat derogatory to the Swedes.
In Spanish there is a well-known expression ‘no te hagas el sueco‘ which means ‘Don’t act like you’re a Swede.’ A related expression is ‘hacerse el sueco‘ which means ‘to play Swedish’.
The expression apparently means ‘don’t pretend you don’t understand’ or ‘don’t act dumb’. It is often used when somebody is trying to get out of taking responsibility for something.
Clearly there’s an element of dishonesty underlying this expression and that’s not particularly favorable towards Swedes.
I wonder what has happened in Spanish history that was the catalyst for this well-known and well-used expression? I’m not playing dumb, I’m afraid I don’t know.
Oh my God! Am I pretending to be Swedish?!!
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Years ago I sang a solo at a concert. It was the first time I ever sang solo, and I was nervous. Thankfully I didn’t die and actually it went ok. After the show, a friend came up to me and said ‘har du fått blodad tand?’ – ‘have you got a bloody tooth?’
So, what does this expression mean? Well, it’s not ‘bloody’ in the sense of ‘damn’. It’s more in the sense of ‘covered in blood’.
To understand this, we need to go to the animal kingdom. Many animals are herbivores in the early stages of their lives. The saying refers to the moment when an animal eats a bloody prey for the first time. After that, all they want is meat and blood. They develop a taste for it and don’t want anything else.
During the Middle Ages the metaphor moved into the Swedish language to mean that somebody wants to do something more often after trying it once. They have been inspired often by a success and want to continue.
In English, we can say ‘he has tasted blood’. Another translation that closely matches the meaning would be ‘to have your appetite whetted’ for something (whetted is an old English word for sharpened).
So, have you got a bloody tooth for something? If so, what?
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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.
As recently as today, I heard the Swedish expression ‘sedan Dackefejden’ (since the Dacke feud). It is used, often ironically, to describe something very old. ‘I haven’t heard this song since ‘dackefejden’, for example. Or ‘that car looks like something from dackefejden’.
I became curious to learn about this Dacke feud that everybody’s referring to. So I checked it out.
It happened 1542-1543, and was the biggest peasant uprising in Nordic history. It happened in the rural county of Småland in southern Sweden and was against King Gustav Vasa. The leader of the uprising was peasant Nils Dacke, and he was angry that the king had raised taxes and forbidden the sale of cattle and butter to the neighboring county of Blekinge, which at the time belonged to Denmark. Additionally, the king had plundered all the silver from their churches and wanted them to renounce their catholic faith.
So they rebelled, and took control of large parts of Småland and Östergötland. Such was their control, that Nils Dacke celebrated Christmas in Kronberg Castle outside of the town of Växjö.
Of course king Gustav Vasa wasn’t too happy about this feud and made various attempts to undermine the leaders. He offered sanctuary for those who surrendered, he slandered Nils Dacke as a false and unreliable person. And in 1543, he attacked – totally defeating and quashing the rebellion.
Nils Dacke was killed by the king’s soldiers. The people of Småland were punished with high taxes, the insurgents were banished to Finland, the leaders were executed and the whole of Dacke’s family was completely eradicated. So it really seemed to be a bad idea to argue with King Gustav Vasa.
And you literally won’t have met a member of the Dacke family ‘sedan dackefejden’.
Watching TV this morning, I heard an expression I have never heard before in Swedish. It was an idiom – ‘att lägga rabarber på nåt’. Translated into English directly that is ‘to put rhubarb on something’.
This is a great example of an idiom and the fascinating thing about idioms is when translated directly, they mean nothing to those who are not initiated. But they have a clear and obvious meaning to those who understand its context. ‘Att lägga rabarber på nåt’ in English idiom would be something like ‘to stake a claim on something’ – in itself an idiom.
But why are Swedes putting rhubarb on things when they want them for themselves? Isn’t that a bit weird? Not when you understand where the saying comes from.
From the beginning, the expression was ‘att lägga embargo på nåt’ – embargo not rhubarb. The word embargo at that time was an unknown, strange word borrowed from Spanish and it meant ‘confiscate’. As it was an unusual word, it became quickly switched out for a more familiar similar-sounding one and ’embargo’ became ‘rabarber.’