In Swedish there is an expression ‘att koka soppa på en spik’ (to make soup from a nail). This is used to mean that somebody has the ability to accomplish or produce something through minimal means; to produce something with no or very little available material. It can be used to describe inventiveness and perseverance.
Where does the expression come from?
It originates in a traditional Swedish fairy tale about a tramp who tricks a miserly old woman into giving him soup. The tramp has only a saucepan and a nail which he begins to boil to make soup. He then asks the old woman for some herbs to add flavour. By gradually asking for more and more ingredients, he succeeds in the end to make an edible soup from the nail.
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’.
Ask people to think about Sweden and invariably they will say IKEA. The massive flat-pack corporation has world dominance when it comes to home furnishings. However, in Germany, Swedish curtains are not necessary an attractive option.
To be ‘hinter schwedischen Gardinen’ (behind Swedish curtains) in colloquial German means to be in prison.
Not entirely sure of the reason but one theory is as follows:
German bars used to be made from strong Swedish steel, as they were particularly strong and escape-proof. When the bars formed a grille, they became the kind of ‘curtain’ that you don’t want to be behind!
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Years ago I sang a solo at a concert. It was the first time I ever sang solo, and I was nervous. Thankfully I didn’t die and actually it went ok. After the show, a friend came up to me and said ‘har du fått blodad tand?’ – ‘have you got a bloody tooth?’
So, what does this expression mean? Well, it’s not ‘bloody’ in the sense of ‘damn’. It’s more in the sense of ‘covered in blood’.
To understand this, we need to go to the animal kingdom. Many animals are herbivores in the early stages of their lives. The saying refers to the moment when an animal eats a bloody prey for the first time. After that, all they want is meat and blood. They develop a taste for it and don’t want anything else.
During the Middle Ages the metaphor moved into the Swedish language to mean that somebody wants to do something more often after trying it once. They have been inspired often by a success and want to continue.
In English, we can say ‘he has tasted blood’. Another translation that closely matches the meaning would be ‘to have your appetite whetted’ for something (whetted is an old English word for sharpened).
So, have you got a bloody tooth for something? If so, what?
In English, we have vivid sayings such as ‘pissed as a fart’, ‘drunk as a skunk’ and ‘pissed as a newt’. In Sweden, one of the expressions to describe an intoxicated person is ‘drunk as a jackdaw‘ (Swedish: full som en alika). It might seem odd, but there is an explanation.
The most popular theory has to do with the small breweries that populated the Swedish countryside in the past. At the end of the brewing process, the brewers would through the unusable remnants out into the yard. This meant that there were attractive piles of sweet mush distributed all over the countryside. The local jackdaws were rather partial to this mashy, mushy goo, and they would swoop down to eat it. While getting food in themselves, they also imbibed alcohol, and after a while, they would stagger away across the yard in blissed inebriation. The local population of course loved this, and coined the phrase ‘drunk as an jackdaw’.
In Swedish, there is another expression for being a drunk, this time in a noun form – ‘fyllekaja’ – which also means ‘drunk jackdaw’. The word ‘kaja’ is the word for jackdaw in most of Sweden. ‘Alika’ is a regional word used mostly in the southern counties.
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.
There’s an expression in Swedish that I’ve often wondered about where it comes from. The expression – ‘pang på rödbetan‘ – bang on the beetroot. It’s a weird idiomatic expression that in its earlier meaning, referred to getting straight down to penetrative sex without any foreplay. However, today it is used to describe any situation in which we get straight down to it, for example in a meeting, in a discussion, in a conflict.
The ‘pang på’ is easy to understand as it means straight forward or slap-bang. But where does the beetroot come from?
Well, according to a common theory, it originated from the word ‘robota’ in Polish. This word came with temporary labourers to southern Sweden in the 1800’s and was Swedified by the locals. The expression ‘pang på rödbeta’ was used in Sweden’s southern Skåne region already in the 1900’s. So what does the word ‘robota’ mean? Well, it is defined as hard work, repetitive work and routine work.
So ‘pang på robata’ – getting straight down to hard work.
Interestingly, the word ‘robata’ is also the origin of the word ‘robot’ – something that does repetitive, routine work.
As recently as today, I heard the Swedish expression ‘sedan Dackefejden’ (since the Dacke feud). It is used, often ironically, to describe something very old. ‘I haven’t heard this song since ‘dackefejden’, for example. Or ‘that car looks like something from dackefejden’.
I became curious to learn about this Dacke feud that everybody’s referring to. So I checked it out.
It happened 1542-1543, and was the biggest peasant uprising in Nordic history. It happened in the rural county of Småland in southern Sweden and was against King Gustav Vasa. The leader of the uprising was peasant Nils Dacke, and he was angry that the king had raised taxes and forbidden the sale of cattle and butter to the neighboring county of Blekinge, which at the time belonged to Denmark. Additionally, the king had plundered all the silver from their churches and wanted them to renounce their catholic faith.
So they rebelled, and took control of large parts of Småland and Östergötland. Such was their control, that Nils Dacke celebrated Christmas in Kronberg Castle outside of the town of Växjö.
Of course king Gustav Vasa wasn’t too happy about this feud and made various attempts to undermine the leaders. He offered sanctuary for those who surrendered, he slandered Nils Dacke as a false and unreliable person. And in 1543, he attacked – totally defeating and quashing the rebellion.
Nils Dacke was killed by the king’s soldiers. The people of Småland were punished with high taxes, the insurgents were banished to Finland, the leaders were executed and the whole of Dacke’s family was completely eradicated. So it really seemed to be a bad idea to argue with King Gustav Vasa.
And you literally won’t have met a member of the Dacke family ‘sedan dackefejden’.