The Icelandic language is an amazing thing. We have a whole host of words and idioms to convey our every thought and mood!
We‘ve given you a few of the innocent-sounding Icelandic phrases with surprisingly violent meanings but as it turns out, it also works the other way around. What can I say, Icelandic doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
All the dead lice are falling from my head! – Golly, am I surprised!
Detti mér nú allar dauðar lýs úr höfði!
Have you ever been so surprised all the lice fell out of your head, dead?!? No? Well, then you’ve never been REALLY surprised.
Honestly, I couldn’t find anything about the origin of this phrase – some people guess that it’s pretty difficult to get rid of lice, so all of them falling off your head dead would be as unlikely as whatever it was that was so surprising. If that’s the case, it would be similar to exclaiming that hell must have frozen over!
Pulling out someone’s intestines – Getting detailed information from someone
Að rekja úr einhverjum garnirnar
You visit your grandmother after travelling abroad. She, delighted, goes to put the kettle on and says “sit down with me and let me pull out your intestines!” – record scratch!!! This is a totally normal thing to say in Iceland, meaning ‘to ask someone in great detail”, or “to get the whole story.”
The violent imagery could refer to the process of preparing sheep or cattle after slaughtering, pulling out all the intestines much like you would pull all the details out of someone, but it could also refer to something much darker, namely torturing people for information. Yikes!
Prostitute capable – Having basic knowledge of something
Now you’re in a job interview, and they ask you how good your French is. You promptly answer “prostitute-level” and they move on to the next question.
In Iceland, this could definitely happen. To be ‘hooker-good’ at something means you’re good enough to get by, but not an expert. The phrase originates with sailors and fishermen who would get good enough at a foreign language to find companionship for the night, but no better.
It is most often used for language skills but can be used for almost anything. So, you can be “hooker-good” at pivot tables, cooking burgers, or first-aid!
It’s not a terribly polite thing to say, but everyone will understand you, and people from all walks and stations can be heard using it, including little old grandmothers!
Hanging a baker for a carpenter – Blaming someone for an offense they didn’t commit
Að hengja bakara fyrir smið
Do you know that feeling when you’ve just hanged a baker, only to find out that the carpenter was the guilty one? Boy, was my face red!
To hang a baker for a carpenter only very rarely involves actually hanging someone – it means to mistake something for something else or accuse someone of another person’s crime.
Unlike some other phrases and sayings, we know exactly where this one came from. An 18th-century poem by Johan Herman Wessel, by way of Denmark. The satirical poem, The Carpenter and the baker, tells the story of a carpenter in a small town who commits murder. Rather than punishing him for his crime, the townspeople decide to hang a baker, because there are two bakers in town but just one carpenter!
A burnt child avoids the fire – You don’t make the same mistake twice
Brennt barn forðast eldinn
One of our most commonly used proverbs, which means that if you have a bad experience with something or someone, you’ll be more careful of it in the future. It can also be used to say “let someone go their own way, and they will learn from their mistakes.”
PLEASE NOTE: This is a proverb, not a parenting tip.
Now the knife’s stuck in the cow – We have a problem
Þar stóð hnífurinn í kúnni
It’s simple, really. You’re performing a task when suddenly, something goes unexpectedly wrong and suddenly, there’s an obstacle in our way. The only question is, why did they have to compare it to cutting a cow?
Hit someone with a golden hammer – Giving someone a compliment
Að slá gullhamra
Don’t you just love it when you’re walking down the street and a stranger hits you with a golden hammer? Makes my day! If someone tries to hit you with a golden hammer, don’t be afraid. They’re just giving you a compliment.
In our guide to Icelandic slang, you can learn about colourful Icelandic phrases and idioms.