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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Unfortunately I can’t speak Spanish very well. However, I have heard a phrase in Spanish that is somewhat derogatory to the Swedes.
In Spanish there is a well-known expression ‘no te hagas el sueco‘ which means ‘Don’t act like you’re a Swede.’ A related expression is ‘hacerse el sueco‘ which means ‘to play Swedish’.
The expression apparently means ‘don’t pretend you don’t understand’ or ‘don’t act dumb’. It is often used when somebody is trying to get out of taking responsibility for something.
Clearly there’s an element of dishonesty underlying this expression and that’s not particularly favorable towards Swedes.
I wonder what has happened in Spanish history that was the catalyst for this well-known and well-used expression? I’m not playing dumb, I’m afraid I don’t know.
Oh my God! Am I pretending to be Swedish?!!
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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?
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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.