A new book is being released tomorrow. Villa, Volvo, Vovve is the Local newspaper’s word guide to Swedish life. The book looks at Swedish culture through Swedish vocabulary and is interesting and entertaining in equal measure. I learned a lot and laughed out loud quite a few times!
Organised alphabetically, the book takes you on a journey from ‘A’, meaning ‘yes, I agree’ to ‘Ö’ meaning ‘island’. Along the way it stops off at Swenglish, False Friends, grammar, pronunciation and a variety of crosswords and quizzes to test the reader. It is not a text book but is a great book for dipping into and learning more about Swedish culture and tradition via its language.
The book is edited by Catherine Edwards and Emma Löfgren and published by Lys Förlag. If you are interested in discovering more about Swedish words and sayings then I suggest you grab a copy from tomorrow at reputable book shops, physical and on-line.
In English when we conceal a smile, we sometimes use the expression ‘to laugh in my sleeve’. This is the approximate meaning of ‘att le i mjugg’. Most Swedes, however, don’t know what ‘mjugg’ means as it is a rather odd word.
‘Mjugg’ is an old word which was first noted in the 1500’s. Meaning ‘in secret’, or ‘on the sly’, it is thought to either come from German or English. The German word ‘mucken’ means to smile or mumble. An old English expression ‘hugger-mugger’ meant clandestine. In regional Swedish, the word ‘mugg’ exists – meaning ‘in secret’.
So, ‘att le i mjugg’ means ‘to smile in secret’, probably with contempt and at somebody else’s expense.
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!
Please share this post if you found it interesting.