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.
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.
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.
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.
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.