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’.
In an earlier post, I wrote how Swedish can sometimes be very clear. To the point of literalness. There are also cases where Swedish is very unclear, where you’re not quite sure what is being said, or referred to. Here are 10 very confusing Swedish words:
- Himmel – in Swedish this is the word for heaven and also for sky. So which is being referred to?
- Trappa – Swedish sometimes doesn’t distinguish between inside and outside. This is the word for stairs and also for steps. So, take the ‘trappa’ can be confusing.
- Tak – likewise, this is the word for roof and also ceiling. So, what does fixing the ‘tak’ actually refer to?
- Man – the word for man, is also the word for husband. Confusing…is he married or just a man?
- Ben – is the word for leg and also for bone. So if you break your ‘ben’, what have you broken?
- Kudde – in Swedish is the same word for pillow and for cushion. So, tidy up the ‘kudde’ means which ones exactly?
- Låna – the word for borrow, and also for lend. So what exactly do you want to do? Give – or take?
- Tidning – Swedish uses the same word to describe a newspaper and a magazine. So, pass me the ‘tidning’ means which one exactly?
- Lov – in Swedish the same word is used for permission, promise, duty and praise. It’s just all round confusing.
- Nöt – the most confusing of all. I know from my personal experience in a restaurant. This is the word for nut, and also for beef. So is the food vegetarian or not? Trust me, it’s an easy mistake to make.
Know any other confusing Swedish words? Please share!
I am what Swedes would call a ‘sjusovare’ – a seven sleeper. The opposite of the early bird, a seven sleeper loves to sleep late, lie in and definitely not get up early. The nearest expression in English is probably a ‘sleepyhead’.
Curious as I am, I checked into where the word ‘sjusovare’ comes from. It does not have an agricultural origin to do with sleeping past the hour of 7 o’clock. No, the expression has much more religious beginnings.
In 251 AD, the Roman Caesar Decius carried out a purge where he persecuted Christians. Seven young men were accused of following the religion, and asked to repent. They refused, and retreated to a cavern to pray. After a while they fell asleep. On hearing this, Decius ordered the mouth of the cave to be sealed off, entombing the men inside. Three hundred years later, a landowner opened the cave again and found the sleepers within. They awoke, thinking they had only slept one day. They awoke to a new political and religious landscape where Christianity was the norm and they were no longer persecuted. Basically, they slept until the danger was over.
These miraculous men were named the Seven Sleepers, which later became the Swedish noun a seven sleeper. Their legendary tomb can be visited today, just outside the Turkish town of Selcuk.
So I am a seven sleeper. But 300 years seems a bit extreme. 9.30 seems a more reasonable time to get up.
Swedish is quite a difficult language to learn, especially the pronunciation. However, there are moments when the Swedish language is ridiculously literal. And it is so literal that it is hilarious. Here are the top 15. Feel free to add any others that you can think of in the comments field.
- Sugrör – the Swedish word for straw – literally translates as ‘suck pipe’
- Grönsak – vegetable in Swedish is literally ‘green thing’
- Tunnelbana – the Swedish metro is literally ‘tunnel lane’
- Tvättbjörn – the Swedish word for raccoon translates at ‘wash bear’ (as it tends to wash its prey before eating it)
- Tidskrift – newspaper, literally ‘time writing’
- Sköldpadda – the Swedish word for tortoise is literally ‘shield frog’
- Studsmatta – Swedish word for trampoline is literally ‘bounce carpet’
- Flygplats – Swedish airport translates literally as ‘flight place’
- Vattenkokare – the Swedish word for kettle. Translated literally, it is ‘water boiler’
- Glasögon – the Swedish word for spectacles is ‘glass eyes’
- Rotsak- the Swedish word for root vegetable, translates as ‘root thing’
- Flodhäst – the Swedish word for hippopotamus, literally translates as ‘river horse’
- Järnväg – the Swedish word for railway translates as ‘iron road’
- Kylskåp – the Swedish word for fridge, translates as ‘chill cupboard’
- Finally, my favourite. The Swedish word for vacuum cleaner is dammsugare. Literally – ‘dust sucker’
The things you think about on a Monday afternoon. Sitting quietly, I started to reflect over where the Swedish words for the days of the week come from. After a little research, I found that all of them stem from Norse mythology. Additionally all, but one, are named after the Gods and Goddesses of that period.
Do you know which day is not named after a Norse God or Goddess?
- Måndag – Monday – named after the Norse God ‘Måne’, which means moon.
- Tisdag – Tuesday- named after the Norse God ‘Tyr’, a God of War
- Onsdag – Wednesday – named after the Norse God ‘Oden’, the King God of Wisdom, War and Death
- Torsdag – Thursday – named after the Norse God ‘Thor’, the God of Thunder
- Fredag – Friday – named after the Norse Goddess ‘Freya’ or ‘Frigg’, the Goddess of Love and Fertility (also by the way Oden’s wife)
- Lördag – Saturday – named not after a god, but after the Norse tradition of bathing – called ‘att löga sig’
- Söndag – Sunday – named after the Nordic Goddess of the Sun – ‘Sol’ or ‘Sunna’.
If you’re interested in knowing how to pronounce the Swedish days of the week, check out this little film, and put your dancing shoes on!
The new words that arrive in a language reflect the main topics of the time. Thanks to the environmental issues that have taken precedence over the years, a bevy of new words has entered the Swedish language. Here are 10 of the newest Swedish environment words:
- Klimatångest – ‘climate anxiety’ – a sense of worry about the state of the climate and the environment
- Klimataktivist – ‘climate activist’ – someone who campaigns and fights for environmental issues
- Flygskam – ‘flying shame’ – the sense of shame that comes when travelling in a plane
- Klimatsmart – ‘climate clever’ – living in a way that is beneficial to the environment and climate
- Klimatkompensera – ‘to climate compensate’ – the extra fee you can pay when booking a flight that goes to research and development of more ‘climate clever’ solutions
- Plogga – to jog and pick up trash at the same time (combination of the Swedish words ‘jogga’ and ‘plocka’ which means pick)
- Klimatkollaps – ‘climate collapse’
- Plastbanta – ‘to plastic diet’ – the process of cutting down or removing plastic products from your home
- Klimatskuld – ‘climate debt’ – the debt that developed countries have to Mother Earth due to the overconsumption of natural resources
- Klimatavtryck – carbon footprint – the impact each and everyone of us has on the climate and environment
Do you know any other words that should be on this list?
If you’d like to check your carbon footprint, go to http://www.klimatkontot.se where you can answer some questions and see the result. The test is in Swedish and English.
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The English word Easter has a mythical etymology. It originates from the Germanic goddess of fertility – Eostre. Prior to the 300’s, pagan festivities were held in her honour in the month of April. These festivities were slowly replaced by Christian traditions from the 400’s to celebrate the resurrection of Christ – and given the ‘recognisable’ name Easter.
But what about the Swedish word for Easter – Påsk? Where does that originate?
During the same period as Easter, the world’s Jews celebrate a holiday of Passover to mark their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. Passover commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the ‘Book of Exodus’, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. The name of this celebration is ‘Pesach‘.
Originating in this word ‘pesach’ is the Aramaic word ‘paska‘. And from ‘paska’ comes the Swedish word ‘Påsk‘.
So, interestingly, the more secular country of Sweden actually has the most religious origin of the word Easter.