French kiss, Irish coffee and Swedish fish!

There are many adjectives that include a nationality, such as French kiss, Danish pastry, Turkish bath, Spanish Flu, Mexican Wave, Brazilian Wax…..

How many such combinations are combined with the word Swedish? A quick look on line and I find the following five:

Swedish……meatballs

Swedish……massage

Swedish……Chef

Swedish……Bikini Team

Swedish……Fish

Can you think of any more to add to the list?

Swedish icons 10: Monica Zetterlund

Born 1937 in the small town of Hagfors, Monica Zetterlund was Sweden’s most prominent jazz singer throughout time. She was also a celebrated cabaret artist and actor.

She started her career as a teenager singing in her father’s band, and gradually gained fame touring in Sweden, Europe and the USA. She sung mostly in Swedish, but did release a few albums in English. The most famous album was Waltz for Debby that she recorded with the legendary Bill Evans Trio. As a singer, she was frequently compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee, and she performed with Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong, amongst others.

As an actor, she participated in many popular theatre and cabaret productions and acted in many successful films. Her most famous role was in The Emigrants where she played an award-winning role of Ulrika, the fiercely independent village whore. A biographic film of her life, called Monica Z, was released in 2013 and is, in fact, one of the best Swedish films I’ve ever seen.

Throughout her life, she was plagued with severe back pain and developed scoliosis. She walked with a cane and often sat down on stage, and towards the end of her life she was in a wheelchair. She died tragically in 2005 in a fire in her apartment in Stockholm, caused by her smoking in bed.

In Stockholm, there is a park near her home called Monica Zetterlund’s Park. Here there is a sound installation, where you can sit on a bench and listen to her sultry tones.

Below is a sample of her music:

Swedish icons 8: Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf was a legendary Swedish author, born in 1858 in the county of Värmland. Today, 16th March, is the anniversary of her death in 1940.

Selma Lagerlöf is considered to be one of the most groundbreaking female writers in the Nordics. Three of her many novels are ‘The Wonderful Journey of Nils’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Gösta Björling’s Saga’. Her works have been translated into 50 languages.

In 1909, she was the first woman, and Swede, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five years later, in 1914, she was invited to join the highly-respected Swedish Academy – the body that chooses the Nobel prize for Literature. In doing so, she became the first woman to sit at the table.

In 1991, she was the first woman to appear on a Swedish bank note. The 20 crown note, referred to as a ‘Selma’, was removed from circulation in 2016 and she was replaced with an image of another iconic writer Astrid Lindgren.

She was highly politicized, leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Sweden and an active critic of nazism and the persecution of the Jews. She never married, and had two long-standing partnerships with two women. Love between people of the same sex was illegal in her day, but their passion was undeniably clear in a series of letters that became public knowledge in the 1990’s.

Selma Lagerlöf was born into a privileged middle class in a large house called Mårbacka, which today is open for visitors. Around Sweden, there are several statues of her, as well as one in Minneapolis in the USA. When planet Venus was discovered, the larger craters were named after famous significant women. One of them is called Lagerlöf, reflecting the size of her legacy.

Selma Lagerlöf died aged 81. She is buried in the churchyard at Östra Ämtervik not far from her family home.

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.

Confusing Swedish time

One of the differences in languages in the way people tell time. There are a few differences between Swedish and English that can be confusing.

The biggest difference is how Swedes say half past the hour. They actually say ‘half to’, so they refer to the hour that’s coming and not the one that’s gone. So, half past five (5.30) in English is called ‘half six’ in Swedish. You can imagine the confusion. This is probably why Swedes usually apply the 24 hour clock in writing – ie 17.30.

As an extension of the ‘half to’ concept, the time between 5.31 and 5.44 is also interesting. In Swedish 5.35, for example, is explained as ‘five past half six’. Once the clock hits 5.45, it becomes a recognizable ‘quarter to’.

Another interesting concept in Swedish time is that she is female. What is the time is ‘hur mycket är klockan?’ (How much is the clock?) but it can also be ‘hur mycket är hon?’ (How much is she?). The answer is ‘hon är klockan tre’ (she is three o’clock).

Finally, Swedes write dates in the year-month-day format, which can also be confusing at times. Today’s date, for example, is 21-03-12.

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

Swedish expression: ’There is no cow on the ice’.

With all the open air ice skating going on at the moment, I am reminded of the Swedish expression ‘Det är ingen ko på isen’ or ’there’s no cow on the ice’. This expression is used to mean there is ‘ no need for worry’ or ‘don’t be concerned’. So, where does the expression originate?

Well, like many Swedish expressions, this one also has a rural origin. In the old days, farmers that had no running water would take their cows down to the lake to drink. As long as the cows stayed on land, and didn’t venture onto the frozen waters, there was no risk of them falling through the ice and drowning. In fact, the expression is an abbreviation of the longer saying ‘there’s no cow on the ice as long as their rear end is on land’. (Det är ingen ko på isen så länge stjärten är i land.) As long as they had a firm footing, they could rescue themselves if the ice broke around the periphery of the lake.

Confusing Swedish greetings of the festive season

It’s that time of year when people greet each other with more than a simple ‘Hej’ (hello), or ‘tjena’ (hi). There are various ways to do it, depending on the day, and it is a bit confusing for the uninitiated.

The last time you see somebody before Christmas, you say ‘God Jul’ (Merry Christmas). This is assuming Christmas is close of course, and does not apply if the last time you see somebody is October. ‘God Jul’ continues through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Around Boxing Day, the greeting changes to ‘God Fortsättning’ (Good Continuation).

Then, around Dec 30/31, ish, it changes to ‘Gott Slut’ (Good Ending) before changing to ‘Gott Nytt År’ (Happy New Year) at the strike of midnight on Jan 1st.

’God Fortsättning’ (Good Continuation) takes over again around Jan 2 and then fizzles out after two weeks. The absolute final date for any form of festive greeting is Jan 13th. This day is called ‘Tjugondag Knut’ and is when Christmas is over in Sweden and the Christmas tree and decorations are traditionally thrown out. After that, it’s back to ’Hej’ again.

So as today is Dec 27, I’d like to wish you all a ‘God Fortsättning’.

The Nobel prizes. What is your legacy?

Today is Nobel Day when the winners of the five Nobel prizes are celebrated. This year is a digital ceremony and the usual concert and grand banquet have been cancelled to avoid crowding.


But how did the Nobel prizes come about? Well, the story goes like this. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, woke up one day to his own obituary in the newspaper. Mistakenly, the paper had declared him dead, when in fact it was his brother. As a title for the obituary, the newspaper had written a rather unflattering ‘The angel of death is dead‘. The journalist also wrote that Alfred Nobel had made it possible to kill more people than anyone who had ever lived.


Suddenly Alfred Nobel understood this is how he would be remembered and, to change it, he founded the Nobel Prizes. Now his name is synonymous with science, literature and peace.


It makes for an interesting reflection. If you could read your own obituary, would you be proud of what you read? Would you also change your behaviours to influence the memory of you? And, if that’s the case – why not get out there and do it now?

Swedish nicknames – male or female?

In English, nicknames for men are often abbreviations of their name. Robert becomes Bob, Richard becomes Dick, Andrew becomes Andy. In Swedish, it’s not so. Usually, the nicknames get a bit longer and are signified by an ending that has a double consonant and ‘e’.

If you hear a Swedish name ending in double consonant and ‘e’, it is almost always a male name. The ‘e’ is pronounced ‘eh’. Jan becomes Janne, Dan is Danne, Leif is Leffe. Others are Olle, Beppe, Kalle, Chrille and Fredde. Some female nicknames ending with ‘e’ are Madde (Madeleine), and Mirre (Mariana), but female nicknames with double consonant and ‘e’ are quite unusual.

Names ending with ‘a’ are usually female names – Mia, Moa, Nadja and Ebba. If you hear a name ending in ‘a’ it is almost always a female name. There are a few male names, such as Gösta, Ola, Noa and Joshua but it is overwhelmingly female names that end with ‘a’.

Nicknames for women usually get shorter and often have ‘an’ on the end. Elisabeth becomes Bettan, Birgitta is Gittan, Therese becomes Tessan, Mikaela is Mickan.

So, how many men and how many women are in the following example?

I saw Nisse, Tobbe, Lottan and Nillan yesterday. They were sitting with Bosse, Kjelle and Affe. I’m not sure where Maggan, Nettan or Pelle were.