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10 Common Swedish Idioms – “Shrimp Sandwiches” and “Cows on the Ice” Posted by on Oct 22, 2020 in Culture, humor, Swedish Language, The Swedish blog team, Vocabulary


Idioms are the best. They are playful phrases we use to describe a situation by metaphor or figure of speech. The literal translations don’t make sense and often leave non-native speakers scratching their heads – “Huh, what do they mean by saying it’s raining cats and dogs?” There are several of these sayings that sound just as funny in Swedish. This week, I’ll cover some of my favorite idioms that are widely-used. NEXT week, I’ll go over some idioms that I recently discovered but have never heard of. 

“King Size Shrimp sandwich at restaurant Heaven 23 in Gothia Towers” Credits Marie Ullnert/imagebank.sweden.se

Svenska uttryck av Kerstin Johanson

Similar to mastering humor in your foreign language, idioms are difficult to navigate. Distinguishing between what someone is literally saying and what they actually mean isn’t always that easy. It takes a keen ear and good sense of the context to understand that someone is using a figure of speech. 

My Swedish friends and family know I’m a bit of a language nerd, so I’ve been gifted quite a few Swedish language reference books over the years. One book that I recently picked up again, I was gifted from friend Evelina – remember her? She helped me write the Intro to Sámi Music post back in February.  Svenska uttryck och deras ursprung by Kerstin Johanson is the book that Evelina sent to me for Christmas several years ago. Every now and then I pick it up and have a chuckle at how silly some of these expressions sound.

The author points out that many Swedish, as well as English, expressions are derived from passages in the Bible. “En ulv i fårakläder → a wolf in sheep’s clothing” for example, referring to the warning of false prophets. Another common trait for idioms is rhyming or alliteration. This makes them easier to remember and more fun to use. For example “Lägga lök på laxen → to put onions on the salmon.” This phrase is similar to “rubbing salt in a wound,” or to make a bad situation worse. 

Here are some more of my favorites. I’ll provide the Swedish, then the literal translation, followed by the English equivalent.

       svenska                    literal meaning                 English equivalent or meaning
1. Lätt som en plätt              Easy as a pancake                    Easy as pie  

2. Skägget i brevlådan      The beard is in the mailbox  Caught in the act 

3. Det är ingen ko på isen → There is no cow on the ice   Don’t panic

4. Ge järnet                         →       Give the iron                    →  Give it your all
*this saying comes of Stockholmsslang, “att dra full gas på motorcykel / to go full throttle on a motorcycle.”

5. Glida in på en räkmacka → Slide in on a shrimp sandwich  Have an easy time of something, “You lucked out.”

6. På tal om trollen                    →  Speaking of the troll   →   Speak of the devil 

7. Inte för allt smör i Småland  →   Not for all the butter in Småland →  Not for all the money in the world
    *This saying is often woodburned into a butter spreaders. Who’s else has one of these?!

8. Ta i trä                                       →            Grab wood         → Knock on wood

9. Göra björntjänst                      →           Do a bear’s job    → to do a big favor
*a reader added that she uses this idiom when someone does a favor that is unwarranted, or unnecessary 

10. Smaken är som baken, delad  →  Preference is like the rear end, split.  😂
Basically, “to each their own.”


Do you have a favorite idiom from that list? Perhaps there is another one you’d like to share?  Tell us below!

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About the Author: Chelsea B

Chelsea is a Swedish language instructor and translator living in Minnesota, U.S. She has a degree in Scandinavian Studies from Gustavus Adolphus College and has experience living and working in Sweden from north to south! In her free time, she enjoys cooking, hiking, listening to music, and practicing slöjd, the Swedish word for handcraft.


Comments:

  1. Ingalill Gee:

    Tomtar på loftet

    Hissen går inte ända upp

  2. João Paulo de Sousa:

    #7 does it mean the butter in Småland is particularly good and expensive? Or more simpler, butter is not a basic food so, if you like to eat it you’ve to pay it dear …
    Anyway, use of rethorics and some components of it like metaphors are an excellent idea to deepen the language knowledge. Bravo!

    • Chelsea B:

      @João Paulo de Sousa Småland, and southern Sweden in general, was known for its good farming and animal husbandry, and in turn, they exported butter to other areas in Sweden. So “Inte för allt smör i Småland” means you wouldn’t do something even for a great reward, like all the fine butter in Småland!

  3. Dr Winton McNab:

    Idioms – we use them every day! Translate into Swedish ‘that has put the cat amongst the pigeons’ ‘

  4. Charlotte:

    My Swedey friend says the Swedes say they’re ”round under the feet”, for tipsy. I’m just starting to learn so can’t translate it but I’m sure you can.

    • Chelsea B:

      @Charlotte That’s right, Charlotte! “Rund under fötterna.”

  5. Isabelle:

    De äter ris i China
    They use that in my family to state the obvious…

  6. Isabelle:

    Oops… Kina 😉


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