Some Swedish sayings and their origins

Hey all,

I thought I'd post something about Swedish sayings that are... well, not quite exactly sage-like proverbs, but still such that everybody knows them and might use them.

As I started, I quickly realised that there are quite literally hundreds of these, so I'm sure other natives will chime in with plenty of their own suggestions in the comments - I just chose some that I thought are funny. :)

Nära skjuter ingen hare

Literal translation: "Close shoots no rabbit"

Meaning that sometimes, it doesn't matter how close you came to something, because you needed to achieve the result and you didn't. Very useful for sports journalists.

Att kasta yxan i sjön

Literal translation: "To throw the axe into the lake"
Actual meaning: To give up

There is a German saying (der Axt den Stiel nachwerfen) as well as an English one ("to throw the helve after the hatchet"), both of which may have been where it originated. There's also a Biblical tale in 2 Kings 6:1-7 about how Elisha made an iron axhead float by throwing a stick into the river.

Vad dillar du om?

Literal translation: "What are you dilling about?"
Actual meaning: What on earth are you babbling about?

To dilla means to talk nonsense. It's derived from the noun dille, which in turn originates from alcoholic delirium. So really, the original meaning was "drunken ramblings", but people have no idea about that nowadays. :)

Saken är biff!

Literal translation: "The thing is beef!"
Actual meaning: There we go! / All set! / etc.

Typically used to denote reaching an agreement about something. The etymology has absolutely nothing to do about meat, though. In the military, bifalles ("seconded") was/is the term used to approve an application, and it was abbreviated bif. - so it derived from there.

Finns det hjärterum så finns det stjärterum

Literal translation: "Where there's heart-space, there's butt-space"

A nice way of saying that there's always room for one more as long as everyone is friendly. Or you can use it to mean "move over, I wanna fit in the sofa!"

Att lägga rabarber på något

Literal translation: "To put rhubarbs on something"
Actual meaning: To appropriate something

Originally a hilariously bad mistranslation of the Spanish embargo, meaning seizure of goods. To put something in embargo makes a lot more sense but is also a lot less funny.

Att ana ugglor i mossen

Literal translation: "To suspect owls in the bog"
Actual meaning: Uh-oh, Arnauti's coming!
Actual actual meaning: To suspect a trap

Borrowed from Danish. They used to say it about wolves, under the assumption that wolves in the bogs might actually be dangerous, but wolves went extinct in Denmark in 1813 so they changed it to owls because... I don't know, Danes are weird. Then we borrowed it.

Also: Denmark has wolves again! (

Nä, kyss Karlsson!

Literal translation: "No, kiss Karlsson!"
Actual meaning: "Oh my!"

Typically used as an exclamation when something incredible happens, often in conjunction with some negative possible outcome. It's from a 1913 murder trial in Upplands Väsby, just an hair north of Stockholm, in which _häradshövding_¹ Axel Carlson successfully defended two travelling Italians in what almost turned into a severe miscarriage of justice. As the verdict of not guilty was being proclaimed, the mother of one of the defendants is said to have thrown herself at the judge, smothering him with kisses - to which he replied: "Don't kiss me, kiss Carlson!"

¹ A härad was a rural administrative division, corresponding roughly to the old hundreds in the USA and in England. We also used to call them hundare for a hundred, presumably because each consisted of enough men to command four war vessels of 25 men each. At some point it turned into härad instead, which is actually not a related word - rather, it meant "warband". Eventually, the obligations of the härad were gradually transferred into other systems, and it was removed as an administrative unit. But its court system, the häradsrätt, remained, and the häradshövding - lit. "chieftain of the hundred" - was its chairman. The title was abolished in the 1970s, although those who were affected by the change were allowed to keep it for as long as they stayed in office.

Ingen fara på taket

Literal translation: "No danger on the roof"
Actual meaning: Don't worry about it

Basically says to calm down and keep a level head, since there's no point in worrying and things will be fine. Do note that it's a casual saying, not something through which you'd attempt to reassure an actually anxious person.

Ingen ko på isen

Literal translation: "No cow on the ice"
Actual meaning: There's no hurry

The original has kind of been long lost to time, but the full phrase used to go det är ingen ko på isen så länge rumpan är i land - "there's no cow on the ice as long as the butt is on land". It makes sense because farmers would need to lead their cows to water daily, and to make a hole in the ice (documentary footage) to let them drink. The cows were safe as long as they had their back hooves on land, but they would risk serious injury or even death if they fell over trying to walk on the ice. So when there's no entire cow on the ice - don't worry about it!

Nu har du skitit i det blå skåpet

Literal translation: "Now you've ❤❤❤❤ in the blue cupboard"
Actual meaning: Now you've done it!

Popularised by Janne "Loffe" Carlsson, a Swedish actor, who used it in the 1981 blockbuster comedy Göta kanal. According to him, his father used to shout that if the kids had really, really messed up. It caught on and now everyone knows about it. :) One possible explanation is that blue wood dye used to very expensive, and hence was only used for the finest linens and china a family in the lower societal classes might own. Hence, pooping in the blue cupboard would be an absolute travesty.

Att ha rent mjöl i påsen

Literal translation: "To have pure flour in the bag"
Actual meaning: To be honest

This one ought to be fairly obvious, but it's very good to have heard so I thought I'd include it. :)

Det var i grevens tid!

Literal translation: "That was in the time of the count!"
Actual meaning: At the very last minute

Proper etiquette used to dictate that guests arrived in order of their status. The count, being the "finest" outside of royalty, would come last, after which the social event could start. We use it as a positive, for a crisis averted with seconds to spare - so to speak. This is said to be derived from when Per Brahe the Younger was governor of Finland in the 17th century, a time during which Finland prospered, and which was remembered fondly for a long time.

Stå för fiolerna

Literal translation: "To provide for the violins"
Actual meaning: To pay for everyone

Loaned from French payer les violins, meaning to support a woman who takes on other lovers as well.

Att vara bakom flötet

Literal translation: "To be behind the float"
Actual meaning: To be an idiot

The float being a cork or a bobber, depending on where you're from. :) I have absolutely zero idea why. Maybe I'm bakom flötet myself.

Group category!

I'm ending this with some phrases that all translate to "not the sharpest tool in the shed". As English does, Swedish contains quite a lot of these. I'll translate them literally for the sense of clarity, rather than using idiomatic English.

  • Inte den vassaste kniven i lådan - Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
  • Inte alla bestick i lådan - Not all cutlery items in the drawer
  • Inte skottat ända fram - Not shovelled [the snow] all the way
  • Hissen går inte ända upp - The lift doesn't go all the way up
  • Att ha GPS:en inställd på Ankeborg - To have the GPS set for Duckburg
  • Inte alla hästar i stallet - Not all horses in the table
  • Inte alla indianer i kanoten - Not all indians in the canoe²
  • Hjulet snurrar men hamstern är död - The wheel is turning but the hamster is dead
  • Inte alla hönsen hemma - Not all hens at home

² I'm aware that "indian" in the sense of native American is offensive in English. It's typically not in Swedish, though, and many Swedes would be surprised to learn that it's basically a pejorative. I imagine it'll gradually grow out of fashion here as well - the sooner, the better.

Closing words

I'm very fond of etymology, folklore, historical colloquialisms, and such, so I had lots of fun putting this together. I hope you enjoyed reading the post as much as I did making it!

If you want more, there's an absolute classic called Bevingade ord och andra talesätt by Pelle Holm, which has been released in fifteen editions since the first one in 1939. The book Bevingat by Birgitta Hellsing, Magdalena Hellquist, and Anders Hellgren is a more recent, also excellent resource.

April 24, 2017


Thank you! You are the greatest penguin! :D

April 25, 2017

Naaw, thank you. :)

April 25, 2017

Hooting from somewhere in the distance.

April 28, 2017

Found these and still enjoying your post a year later. Thanks for the time your spent putting these all down for us. It's gone into my copious notes for additional material and learning. :o)

December 13, 2018

Thank you, I'm glad to hear that. :)

December 13, 2018
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