Right now in Stockholm we are between the bird cherry and the lilac. This Swedish expression ‘Mellan hägg och syren’ is used to describe this short period between when these two bushes blossom. At the moment the bird cherry is blossoming, but not yet the lilac. The period reflects the early days of summer and for many Swedes it is the most delightful time of the year. A friend of mine nostalgically said yesterday that ‘it smells like end of school’.
So where does this expression come from? Well, the common theory is that it was first used by a cobbler who put a sign up in the window of his shop. He had decided to take a brief holiday, and the sign read ‘closed between the bird cherry and the lilac’.
Sitting with some friends yesterday, we discussed why the Swedish word ’korkad’ (corked) means stupid. After much research, we couldn’t find an answer but we guessed it had something to do with the fact that cork is empty, light and flighty. Another thought was once you have uncorked a bottle and drunk it, it is an empty vessel.
We might not have found the origin of the word ‘korkad’ but we did find lots of expressions in Swedish to call somebody stupid. Here are 15 of them!
1) Bakom flötet – behind the float (fishing)
2) Tjockskallig – thick skulled
3) Tappad bakom en vagn – dropped behind a carriage
4) Tappad i backen – dropped on the ground
5) Ut och cyklar – out cycling
6) Dum i huvudet – stupid in the head
7) Fårskalle – sheep skull
8) Obegåvad – ungifted
9) Har inte alla hästar i stallet/hemma – doesn’t have all his/her horses in the stable / at home
10) Inte den vassaste kniven i lådan – not the sharpest knife in the drawer
11) Hjulet snurrar men hamstern är död – the wheel is turning but the hamster is dead
12) Född i farstun – born in the porch
13) Har inte alla kottar i granen – doesn’t have all the cones on his/her fir tree
14) Jubelidiot – celebrated idiot
15) Hissen går inte hela vägen upp – the lift doesn’t go all the way to the top floor
Then there are lots of words like ‘korkad’ that are fun to say and all mean stupid. For example, ’trög, bombad, knasig, knäpp, puckad, pantad, pundig, beng, bläng, boll, ding, fläng, prillig, stollig, svagsint, rubbad, koko, blåst’.
Who knew there were so many ways to call somebody stupid in Swedish? I tend to just say ‘dum’ but I’m now going to practice a few more of these words and expressions.
The Swedish expression ‘kaka på kaka’ or ’tårta på tårta’ is translated as ‘cake on cake’. It is quite a commonly-used expression – but what does it mean?
Swedes use ‘kaka på kaka’ to describe something that is an unnecessary addition that becomes a bit too much, or even over the top. For example, ‘buying another television when we already have two is a bit cake on cake.’
It can also mean an unnecessary repetition. In English – superfluous – ‘when you gave that example in your presentation, it was a cake on cake’.
The saying itself is an example of tautology – a concept in language where we unnecessarily repeat a word and it adds no meaning, eg chai tea (chai means tea), or salsa sauce (salsa means sauce) or naan bread (naan is bread). So the expression ‘cake on cake’ feeds into this concept by emphasising that one of the cakes is unnecessary.
The original meaning of the saying was related to overindulgence. So cake on cake meant basically you can’t get too much of a good thing – bring on the cake!! Over the years, and with the influence of Swedish moderation, it changed to mean too much that is not necessary.
Yesterday, a new book was published by author Rickard Gramfors. The book, entitled ‘Do you believe in Swedish sin?’ looks at Swedish exploitation and cult films. The book includes ‘350 outrageous, sexy, violent, fun movie posters from the Fifties to the early Eighties. Swedish films of all kinds, whacky co-productions, exported Swedish babes, and international films using the words Sweden, Schweden, Svezia, Suède as selling points; if it was “Swedish” – it was sexy!’
I have put my order in.
This international concept of Swedish sin still lingers around today, and influences some foreigners’ perception of Swedish women. Where does it come from?
Maybe unsurprisingly, it originates in the prudish conservative USA. In a speech given by US president Dwight D Eisenhower in 1960, he claimed that “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide” in Sweden were due to welfare policy excess. This was a rhetorical way to attack Swedish people and politics at the same time. However, the world quickly forgot the link to welfare policy – but the sin reference remains.
He was basing his opinion on the scandalous Swedish fifties art films like ”One Summer of Happiness” and ”Summer with Monika”, birth-control pills, sexual education publications and condom vending machines. Swedish nudity was prevalent in most of the films throughout the 60’s and 70’s thus cementing the idea of Swedish sin.
In 1971, the Swedish sex education film ‘Language of Love’ was released in London to massive protest. One anti-film sign read ‘Sweden – more pornography, more suicides, more alcoholism and more gonorrhoea every year’.
Place on top of these scandalous films, young women who were self-determined, educated, liberated and sexually-active, and the stereotype becomes fixed.
The interesting thing about stereotypes is that they remain for a very long time. This is why the notion still exists today even though Swedish film today is far from exploitative.
Additionally, stereotypes often have little to do with reality. The reality was of course something else in Sweden at that time. The country was not riddled with promiscuous, drunken people. For example, Sweden had the world’s most restrictive alcohol laws and was struggling with the oppressive inheritance of Lutheran thinking.
So, did Swedish ‘sin’ ever actually exist? Or was it a politically motivated attack aimed at undermining social democracy? Or was it just a marketing trick to sell films and magazines?
Today, May 5th, is International Cartoonists’ Day, designed to celebrate this specific craft and art form. For all of us, cartoons are part of the tapestry of our lives, and it’s hard to imagine a media landscape without them. This isn’t surprising given that the art form as we know it today – in newspaper, magazine and film – goes back around 170 years.
Although hand-drawn stories originated in the Middle Ages, the satirical and humouristic form we know today started in 1843 in the British Punch magazine. The longest-running newspaper cartoon strip is called The Katzenjammer Kids, known as Knoll and Tott in Swedish. This strip has been published in the American Humorist since 1897. The earliest animated cartoon for film is considered to be Fastasmagorie by French cartoonist Émile Cohl, drawn in 1908. It wasn’t until 20 years later that the first Disney film – Steamboat Willy – appeared, featuring the very familiar Mickey Mouse
So what about Sweden? What is Sweden’s history of cartoons? Cartoon strips in Sweden started in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. The oldest cartoon strip that is still being published today is 91:a, which started in 1932. In Sweden, international cartoons have been very popular. Although originating abroad, their names are usually Swedified. For example, Donald Duck is Kalle Anka, Popeye is Karl-Alfred and Fred Basset is Laban. The Finnish cartoon Mumin is also very popular. There are, however, some strips that have been drawn by talented Swedish cartoonists. Here are a few:
1) Bamse. The most successful cartoon from Sweden. Bamse is the world’s strongest bear, who eats honey and is best friends with a rabbit (Lilla Skutt) and a tortoise (Skalman). Drawn by Rune Andreasson, Bamse has his own comic strip, magazine and films. When Swedes give each other a strong hug, they call it a ‘Bamse hug’.
2) Hälge. A melancholy elk drawn by Lars Mortimer. Hälge is constantly on the run from Hunter Edwin and his dog Blixten, who he manages to outwit season after season.
3) Rocky. Cartoonist Martin Kellerman created this autobiographical character aimed at the adult reader. Rocky is a cool dog, the same age as Kellermann and is also a cartoonist. The character is philosophical, satirical and critical and has even been converted into theatre.
4. Assar. A satirical comic strip that appeared in Swedish newspaper DN, drawn by Ulf Lundqvist. Assar is a talking hot dog who has escaped the hot dog stand and lives in a depressed village populated with small-minded residents. Many of the later stories focused more on these residents than on Assar himself.
All of the examples are successful strips drawn by men. There are several acclaimed female cartoonists in Sweden also. Lena Ackebo and Nina Hemingsson are probably the most well known. Both are satirical cartoonists, with distinctive style. They draw a variety of players, and do not restrict themselves to portraying the antics of one particular named character.
What other Swedish cartoonists deserve a mention? Please let me know below!
Yesterday was the sombre funeral of Prince Philip in St George’s Chapel in Windsor, UK. In the House of Nobility in Stockholm, his coat of arms was also hung as he was a member of the noble Swedish Serafimer order.
All this got me thinking about the different ways you can describe somebody dying. In English, we have expressions like ‘bite the dust’, ‘pop your clogs’, ‘join the choir’, ‘go to meet your maker’, ‘kick the bucket’ and ‘shuffle off your mortal coil’. I wondered how many words or expressions there are in Swedish – and I found 21!
Att dö – to die
Att avlida – to die
Att gå ur tiden – literally to ’go out of time’
Att gå bort – to ’go away’
Att somna in – to ’sleep in’
Att trilla av pinn – to fall off the stick
Att stupa – to fall (often in battle)
Att gå i graven – to go to the grave
Att gå hädan – to go away
Att samlas till sina förfäder – to be gathered by your ancestors
Att ta ned skylten – to ‘take down the sign’
Att kola vippen – untranslatable, meaning to die
Att bita i gräset – to bite the grass
Att duka under – to go under
Att dra sitt sista andetag – to take your final breath
Att vinkla upp tofflorna – to point up your slippers
Att dra på sig träfracken – to put on your wooden suit
Att ge upp andan – to give up breathing
Att krepera – to die
Att lämna jordelivet – to leave this earthly life
Att kila vidare – to die, to ‘run onwards’
Can you think of any more expressions or words to add to this list?
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.
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.
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.