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Icelandic phrases

6 Innocent Sounding Icelandic Phrases (With Surprisingly Violent Meaning)

The Icelandic language is an amazing thing. We have a whole host of words and idioms to convey our every thought and mood! Most of the time we’re pretty happy (or at least, calm) but there is a surprising amount of violent phrases in the Icelandic language as well. Perhaps it’s due to our Viking roots (many of these phrases come straight from the sagas) but whatever the reason, here are some of the most violent Icelandic phrases!


Placing someone before the nose of a cat – ASSASSINATION!

If you ask an Icelander if he knows how “placing someone before the nose of a cat” (koma einhverjum fyrir kattarnef) came to mean “to murder someone” he’ll probably guess that it’s related to how a mouse wouldn’t survive very long in front of a cat’s nose. This nice way of discussing planned assassination has been a part of the Icelandic language since the 19th century and that really does seem to be the logical explanation.

There is, however, another theory based on an older version of the phrase. It is much more interesting because it assumes that rather than “kattar nef” it used to be “Hattar nef,” referring to an infamous bandit named Höttur who terrorised and murdered people in medieval Denmark. A queen of Denmark is even included on his list of victims!


I’ll make you feel the tea water/ show you where David bought the ale. – VIOLENT REVENGE

If you’re wondering what it means to make someone feel the tea water (að láta einhvern finna til tevatnsins), it’s the same as showing them where David bought the ale (sýna þeim hvar Davíð keypti ölið).

Now, from the start we know that we would rather taste tea water than feel it, so already this sounds a little bit sinister. But who is David, and what’s the big deal with his ale? One thing is certain; if someone says this to you, you don’t want to find out!

Both phrases mean “to get revenge on someone, possibly violently.” Unfortunately, there’s no exciting explanation for the tea water one. It just seems that in polite Danish society, giving someone a cup of watery tea was considered not very nice! There’s even an older form: “giving someone their tea without sugar.”  The horror!

The story of David and the ale, however, is a long and convoluted one. The phrase also exists in Danish, with the same meaning of a vague threat. But they seem to have lifted the phrase from German and changed both the meaning of the phrase and the person involved.

In German, if someone knows where ‘Barthel gets his mead,’ they are crafty and street-smart. In another version, they know ‘where the stork gets the children’ – meaning they know how the world works, and that children are not brought by storks. And finally, one theory is that the phrase comes from Hebrew, saying that the ‘thief knows how to get valuables with a crowbar (barsel)’.

That’s the origin of the phrase, and if you question it, I will show you where David bought the ale!


Your back is bare without a brother (to protect you from all the STABBING going on)

Well, surely, this one could mean anything! Maybe your brother gives you a jacket when you’re cold, so your back isn’t bare. But no, again, it’s about murders. Stabby murders!

Hver er ber að baki nema sér bróður eigi. This is one of our oldest and most well-known sayings, meaning that if you don’t have someone looking out for you, you’re vulnerable. Kind of similar to “no man is an island.” But with more murders.

The saying originates from the popular ‘Saga of the burning on Njal’ dating back to about the year 1000 AD. In it, Kári Sölmundarson is seeking revenge for the burning of the eponymous Njal. He faces down a group of enemies with the help of the cowardly Björn the White, who contributes nothing to the fight beyond standing behind Kári with a shield, protecting his back. After the fight, the heroic Kári honours Björn beyond what he deserves, saying “a man’s back is bare, without a brother.”

Icelandic phrases

Finding someone at the seaside – VIOLENT REVENGE

Ok say you’re in Iceland, and you accidentally bump into a stranger. After a short exchange, they walk away saying “Ég mun finna þig í fjöru” which literally means “I will find you at the seaside.” What could they possibly mean? Are you taking a beach trip together?

Well, the custom of holding trials at the seaside is older than historical records. You know where this is going, don’t you? Murders. The legal kind!

We know that ancient Norwegian laws stipulated punishments take place at the seaside (so it’s easier to clean the blood up? That’s my theory!) and that this law was passed to Iceland in the year 1271, with the so-called ‘Ironside’ laws.

It’s unclear if executions took place at the seaside in Iceland, but they definitely would have known about the laws. These laws were in effect until the 1500s, so the phrase is at least as old as that.

So when you say you’ll “find someone at the seaside” you’re in essence saying “you have wronged me, and I will have my revenge… Hopefully with blood.”


Give someone a red bag for a grey one – MORE VIOLENT REVENGE THAN THE OFFENSE CALLED FOR

Að gjalda einhverjum rauðan belg fyrir gráan. At first, this sounds like a nice exchange of gifts – You give me a grey bag, I give you a red one. Turns out, it‘s not so much nice as terrifyingly violent.

The origin of the phrase lies in the older meaning of the word belgur. Before it meant bag (or sack), it used to mean skin or fur (the two different meanings come about because they used to make bags out of the skins of animals. Less appetisingly, the human stomach is sometimes called a belgur, since it’s also a bag made out of skin).

Showing someone grey fur meant behaving towards them like a grey-furred wolf (to clarify, badly). The red part is even worse because it means that the offended party was, in fact, so offended, that bloodshed was in order. You show me grey skin, I make yours red.

To sum it up – You do something to me, I cut you!


Cooking grey silver together – BEING ENEMIES

Að elda grátt silfur saman. Again, it might sound nice, getting together and cooking up some grey silver, but there‘s a catch. Grey silver is not good silver!

Grey silver is what you get when the silver is spoiled (mixed with carbon or other metals). When you make grey silver with someone, that means you two should stop getting together and making silver, since all you seem to make together is trouble!

Read our guide to Icelandic slang, the 10 most colourful Icelandic phrases and idioms.

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