Swedish Language Blog

Swedish Idioms Round Two, Go to Hekla and Fox Sleep Posted by on Oct 29, 2020 in Culture, Living in Sweden, Swedish Language

Hekla Mountain, Iceland. Photo: hekla.com

Last week, I wrote about some common idioms that you’re bound to hear in every day Swedish. In doing research for that post, I discovered some rather obscure ones too. I’ll share some of those in this post as well as share the origin stories behind a couple of classic idioms. Nu kör vi! Let’s go!

Because I’m not svensk myself, I didn’t grow up learning the nuances of these phrases. So if you’d like to add an anecdote about an idiom, I welcome you to do so in the comments below. You can even correct me…most of the time I know what I’m talking about, but I have been ute och cyklar (had my head in the clouds) a time or two! 😉

For the list of common idioms on my favorite list, see last week’s post. Again, the reference book I’m using is Svenska uttryck och deras ursprung by Kerstin Johanson. The book is super detailed, but she adds a few sentences of explanation for each phrase in the book. 

In the list below, I have provided the Swedish, followed by the literal translation, followed by the explanation or equivalent saying in English.

  1. Ropa inte hej förrän du är över bäcken → Don’t yell hello until you’re over the stream →  Don’t speak too soon

  2. Sova räv → Fox sleep  pretend sleep 🦊💤
    Listig som en räv, sly as a fox is, where this saying comes from. Pretending you’re asleep but really wide awake is definitely listig.
  3. Dra dit pepparn växer Go to where the pepper grows To wish someone away far away”
    In Swedish, you’ll hear Dra åt helvete / Go to Hell. But this one is a more creative take  “Go to where pepper grows,” in this case peppercorns, is far, far away from Sweden.

  4. Now I know this next one is pretty common. But what I did not know is how it originated. Ana ugglor i mossen is a phrase that means “something isn’t quite right.” It comes from the Danish det er ulve i mosen literally “there are wolves in the moss.” Here’s where, insert Swedish joke, the Swedes heard it wrong. You see, the Danish ulve sounds a lot like the Danish word for ugler (owls), which is the same in Swedish – ugglor. 
    So you’ll find no wolves in Swedish moss, only owls.🦉🤪

  5. Dra åt Häcklefjäll!   → Go to the Mountain Hekla → Go to hell! 🌋

    Dra åt helvete is what you’ll say nowadays, but this phrase is also used when you want to send someone to Hell. Hekla is a mountain-volcano in Iceland. No one wanted to summit Hekla until the late 1700’s because it was thought to be a meeting place for witches, creepy creatures, and the entrance to hell.

  6. Det var som katten sa → It’s as the cat spoke → Wow, incredible!

    This one has a particular soft spot with me. When I was living in Småland, my friends used this phrase. The first couple of times, I thought I heard wrong, but then I realized it was some type of idiom. When I asked what it meant and why it was used, folks chuckled and kind of shrugged, because idioms are hard to explain! But I came to learn that because cats don’t speak, you used this phrase to express surprise over something unbelievable.

  7.  Livet på en pinne → Life on a stick →  Living the good life

    According to SAOB, this saying comes from the 1800’s to describe living an exciting life. Johansen cites its usage in the 1920’s ditty made popular by Ernst Rolf:

Jag är ute när gumman min är inne
jag är inne när gumman min är ute

Ja, det är det som är livet på en pinne
och vår kärlek ja den tar aldrig slut.

Listen to the song and see if you can roll your r‘s as well as Ernst!

8. Inte värt ett ruttet lingon → Not worth a rotten lingon → It’s not worth the trouble

  1. Ge bagarbarn bröd → Give the baker’s child bread → Do something unnecessary

    This is used do describe doing something superfluous, there’s not point in giving the baker’s child any bread, they have plenty. Johansen notes that this is the same phrase in British English as “Carry coals to Newcastle” in English. U.K. friends help me out – do you all use this one?

  1. Inte sälja skinnet förrän björnen är skjuten – Don’t sell the skin before the bear is shot. Similar to Don’t put the cart before the horse, As in “don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Any favorite from this week’s list? And what other phrases do you have to add? Get the conversation going 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.


  1. Kyle Maschmeyer:

    Your “Det er som katten sa” should not strike English speakers as too odd if we keep in mind that one expression for something that you find to be really nifty is: “It’s the cat’s meow.”
    I’ll bet they have the same origin, which could be anything from Danelaw influence on English in England to Scandinavian immigrant influence on North American English.
    I’m Canadian and my province is peppered with placenames like Thorsby (Torsby), Westerose (Västerås), and Falun. So lots of people here might have come by that expression through their Swedish heritage.

  2. Kyle Maschmeyer:

    I decided I should not be lazy, so I did a little research to see if anyone knows where the expression “the cat’s meow” comes from, so we could see if it might be related to det som katten sa.
    It turns out that US cartoonist Tad Dorgan is credited with its coinage in the 1920’s. So that would seem to rule out any relation, though to my mind the question remains as to why he chose that expression.

  3. Dee Shields:

    Hi! Really enjoyed this. Have one correction: the Danish expression in number 4 is “der er ugler i mosen” – which means exactly the same as the Swedish: “en ugle” is an owl in Danish. I lived in Denmark for 38 yrs. and never heard the one with “wolves/ulve”. 🙂

  4. Duncan:

    Isn’t “inte sälja skinnet förrän björnen är skjuten” more like the English “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”?