Talking to friends last night the expression ‘en katt bland hermelinerna’ arose. This literally translates as ‘a cat among the ermines’, an ermine being a type of stoat or weasel.
The phrase originated in a couplet by Swedish performer Karl Gerhard in 1955. Karl Gerhard is one of Sweden’s historical entertainers who wrote songs and couplets as well as a large number of sketches, dialogues and monologues. During the Second World War, he wrote humorous pieces with strong anti-fascist statements criticising the Swedish government’s apathy towards Nazi Germany.
So, he coined the comical expression ‘en katt bland hermelinerna’. It’s not the same as our ‘cat amongst the pigeons’ which means somebody is causing chaos and panic. The expression refers to a person who has insinuated themselves into an environment where they do not belong, because they are not from the same social class. In other words, someone who isn’t fancy enough for the rest of the people in their company.
As far as I am aware, there is no expression for this in English. But I hope I’m wrong. Can any of you readers help me out here? Do you know of an English equivalent?
In English, we have the expression ‘cool as a cucumber’. It was first recorded in a poem by John Gay in 1732. The Swedish version of this is ‘cool/calm as a bowl of fermented milk’, or ‘lugn som en filbunke’ in Swedish.
What, you might be asking, is a filbunke? Well, according to the dictionary it is ‘milk that has fermented, unstirred, in small bowls. Has a pudding-like consistency. Traditionally made in small bowls from (unpasteurized and unhomogenized) raw milk, which normally contains some cream. The cream forms a yellowish layer of sour cream on top. Comes unflavoured and flavoured.’
We don’t have an equivalent dish in English as far as I know.
Although the dish has been around since the 1600’s, the expression ‘cool as a filbunke’ entered the Swedish language in 1845. Playwright Johan Jolin wrote in his play ‘A Comedy’ – ‘I’m cool, cool as a filbunke’. It was met with much hilarity. I guess he thought there was something chilled out about a bowl of fermented milk.
Anyone who’s watched ‘Big Bang Theory’ has seen character Sheldon Cooper’s banal video series ‘Fun with Flags’. Nerdy it might be, but it inspired me to do a Swedish version. So here goes…
The Swedish flag is a well-known yellow cross on a blue background. It is modelled on the Danish flag – the Dannebrogen – which is thought to be the oldest official flag in the world. The cross represents Christianity and forms the basis of all the Nordic flags. The Swedish flag was initiated in the early 1500’s and the yellow is said to represent gold and blue represent the sea. Sweden depicted itself as a wealthy sea-faring realm.
Within Sweden, there are 25 counties and each county has its official flag, some even have an unofficial but well-used flag. An example of this is the southern-most county of Skåne. The unofficial flag is the most commonly used. It depicts a yellow cross on a red background, a combination of Sweden and Denmark. The official flag has actually a red background and a coronated griffin.
Sweden’s islands of Gotland and Öland have their own flags. Gotland’s flag depicts a sheep and Öland’s flag depicts a deer. Öland also has a flag that is a yellow cross on a green background.
There are so many flags in Sweden. Counties, regions, cities, towns all have their own flag, it’s impossible to describe them all. So, as my final flag, I will reference one of my favourites. The Sami population of Arctic Sweden have their own flag. Firmly embedded in Sami mythology it is colourful and beautiful.
I’ll never forget how I learned the Swedish word for money. New in Sweden, I went to see a performance of Cabaret at the National Theatre. The musical was in Swedish but I figured it would be ok as I knew the story line. It was fairly entertaining but, to be honest, a bit boring. Until the song ‘Money makes the world go round’ came on. In this song, there’s a line that goes ‘money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money’. The singers pranced around the stage and sang ‘pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar’. It was repeated so often that I never forgot the word ‘pengar’ ever again.
However ‘pengar’ is just the formal word for money in Swedish. Like the US has its ‘buck’ and the UK has its ‘quid’, Swedish also has a lot of colloquial words for the Swedish krona (crown). Here are some examples:
Deg – dough – possibly related to putting food on the table in olden days
Lax – literally a salmon – meaning a thousand crowns. In the early 1900’s, the 1000 crown bill was pink.
Röding – literally a char – meaning 500 crowns
Selma – an old word for 20 crowns. The name is taken from the portrait of author Selma Lagerlöf on the 20 crown note.
Pix – meaning crowns
Kosing – cash
Stålar – cash – refers to steel/metal that coins are made of
Kova – cash. The expression ‘kova raha’ was on 1700’s money. This is Finnish for ‘hard money’.
Pluring – cash. Possibly related to the Latin ‘plures’ meaning many. The word ‘pluring’ was originally used to refer to large amounts of money.
Bagis – a crown. From an older word ‘bagare’ which means baker. Referring probably to the original silver coins that were as white as flour.
Spänn – a crown. Probably borrowed from German ‘späne’ which is slang for money, or English ‘spend’.
Flis – money. Flis also means small wood chips, so it may have originated in Swedish to mean small values of money.
I’m sure there are a lot more words! Please feel free to add them here!
Marvel Comics recently released an advert for an upcoming event with the slogan ‘Knull is coming!’ The headline has caused raised eyebrows, and curiosity, in Sweden.
Knull is apparently a super villain in the Marvel universe. Knull is an all-powerful creature that kills other gods. He is immortal and self-healing. His name should imbue fear and dread. The problem is in Sweden, it is more likely to inspire ridicule.
The thing is that the word ‘Knull’ in Swedish means ‘fuck’.
So, ‘Knull is coming’ has a whole different meaning to the Swedes than the rest of the world.
I wonder who’s going to tell Marvel? Or maybe they already know – and don’t give a knull.
Every summer in Sweden, there is a wonderful tradition. This tradition began in 1959.
Every day for 6 weeks or so, at 1pm, there is a summer talk on Swedish radio channel 1. This might sound mundane, but it is, in fact, an integral part of the Swedish summer.
Each day, a different person is responsible for the talk. This person shares their life stories, perspectives, life lessons, experiences and sometimes their tragedies. They play music of their choice. It is 90 minutes of pure relaxation, with a big dash of voyeurism. Some of the talkers are celebrities, some are politicians, or authors or activists, or influencers, or actors or philosophers or soldiers or priests or even ordinary people.
The talks are in Swedish, although the speakers can originate from outside of Sweden. It is considered an honour to be asked to hold a talk. I would love to do one. I’d share by life story and my perspectives on Swedish culture from my outside perspective. Oh and I’d play music by Kate Bush and The Smiths! What a self indulgent treat!
This year so far we have heard State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell share his story. We also heard climate activist Greta Thunberg. She actually did her talk twice – both in Swedish and English. It is a really inspiring, and somewhat frightening talk about the climate crisis we are in. If you’d like to listen to it, and I urge you to do so, here is the link:
So listen and enjoy a piece of Swedish summer tradition.
It’s funny how some names just don’t translate well. Years ago when I was living in London, I had a Swedish friend called Lasse visiting. At a party I introduced him to another person. ‘Oh’ she said ‘Lasse! That’s a really funny name! It’s the name of a film star dog!’ My friend Lasse looked unamused. He responded by saying ‘Well, what about your name Pippa? In Swedish that means fuck’!
In Swedish, there are some unusable names – because they simply don’t work in an international environment. Many names that are fine in Swedish, are just not in English. Let’s take a look at ten of the ‘worst’ Swedish names.
Titti – there are 1028 women called Titti in Sweden. They have an average age of 53. The most well-known one is a radio host called Titti Schultz. The last Titti to be registered in Sweden was born in 2014.
Jerker – this name works fine in Swedish. Not so much in English. Its masturbatory connotation makes it somewhat tasteless. In Sweden, there are 2705 men called Jerker in Sweden, with an average age of 49. Since 2010 nobody has been registered with this name.
Fanny – this name also exists in English and is considered by many to be inappropriate. Meaning vagina in British English and backside in American English, it’s probably best to avoid it as a name. In Sweden there are 10703 women called Fanny. The Bergman film Fanny and Alexander made the name popular again in the 80’s, so the average age of the name Fanny is actually 25.
Pekka – about 8% of Sweden’s population are Finnish, and of course they give their children names of Finnish origin. Pekka is such a name. Currently there are 2308 Pekkas in Sweden. The name is unfortunate because, to the English-speaking ear, it is suspiciously close to ‘pecker’ which is a slang word for penis.
Lo – a lovely name in Swedish sounds like ‘loo’ in English. To Brits, this means toilet. 2717 females are called Lo, and 1207 males. They average an age of 8, which means their name-related problems are ahead of them.
Sigge – a popular name for boys today. 2161 males have the name, averaging the age of 8. In Swedish, it’s quite a cute name but internationally it sounds like ‘ciggie’ – which means cigarette.
Birger – the name works in Swedish as it has the pronunciation of ‘biryer’. But in English it’s unfortunately pronounced Burger. There are 30,000 men with this name in Sweden, averaging the age of 66. In 2019, 11 new baby Birgers were however registered.
Simon – while we are on the subject of pronunciation, the name Simon becomes relevant. No problem pronounced the English way, but in Swedish the ‘i’ sounds like a ‘ea’. So the name is pronounced seamon, which is rather regrettable.
Odd – an old Nordic name which is beautiful in Swedish. But in English it means strange and weird. Maybe not what we want our newborn to be associated with. That said, there are 1373 of them in Sweden.
Birk – pronounced ‘birrck’ in Swedish, it’s probably also easy for Scots to say. However, English people would say ‘berk’. This is unfortunately a slang word for idiot or dickhead. There are 562 males called Birk averaging an age of 11, and it’s growing in popularity. It is an old Nordic name meaning ‘trading place’.
Sweden isn’t only an urban country of towns and cities, it also has an amazing countryside and wildlife. Wild animals that roam the Swedish countryside include wolves, brown bears, lynx, deer, wolverines, reindeer and moose.
Every year, a wonderful wildlife event happens. Called ‘the great moose migration’, the Swedish moose walk the same path to get to their summer grazing pastures.
If you are interested, you can watch this event unfold as it happens. Part of the concept known as slow TV, the Swedish National TV is currently broadcasting the migration around the clock. It is slow, it is snowy and it is spectacular at times.
Please note: the moose is the national animal of Sweden. Called ‘älg’ in Swedish, there is frequent debate about whether it is translated as moose or elk. The answer is that it is both! It is called ‘moose’ in American English and ‘elk’ in British English. In North America, there is an animal called an elk, but it is a different animal, known also as a wapiti. The North American elk looks like this, and is a kind of deer:
The North American moose/ European elk/ Swedish ‘älg’ looks like this:
The ‘älg’ has the same Latin name as the British elk, and the North American moose (alces).
The expression ‘life on a stick’ – (livet på en pinne)- is used in Swedish to describe a care-free, wonderful life. In the mind of the modern Swede, it conjures up images of, for example, lying on the beach, or floating in the lake, or partying and eating favourite food, or chilling with a beer in the sunset.
The expression is epitomised in a song released by a TV personality called Edward Blom with the name ‘Livet på en pinne’. It includes lyrics such as:
‘Livet på en pinne Göra var dag till en fest Ta varje liten chans du får och njut Minut för minut, livet på en pinne Nåt för varje sinne Ja, låt ditt välbehag få blomma ut’
This translates roughly as:
Life on a stick, make every day a party, take every little opportunity you have to enjoy, minute for minute, life on a stick, something for every sense, yes let your contentment blossom.
So, where does this expression ‘life on a stick’ come from?
There are a few different theories, including a traveling hobo with his possessions in a cloth hung on a stick, and a hygrometer measuring humidity and expansion of a stick. The expression dates from the 1800’s and probably has a more rural origin.
One theory is that the expression relates to birds sitting on a branch in a tree, living a seemingly unfettered life. Another theory is to do with hens.
In the 1800’s in the countryside, many people kept hens and each farm had a hen house. The hen house was stuffed full with hay and sticks and the birds sat there and had a comfortable and carefree existence. While the farmers and their other animals toiled hard, the hens simply enjoyed their life on a stick.