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.
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.
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.’