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Icelandic idioms

An Ode to 10 of the Most Colourful Icelandic Idioms

How do I love thee, Icelandic language? Let me count the ways!

I love how you’ve been passed down to us, relatively unaffected by other languages, since the settlement of Iceland more than a thousand years ago (you’ve matured, rather than changed).

I love how simple – even childishly simple – many words are. For instance, a direct translation of the Icelandic word for kitchen is fire-house (eldhús), an umbrella is rain-protector (regnhlíf) and the word for vacuum cleaner (ryksuga) literally means dust-sucker.

I love all the words in Icelandic that can’t be translated, at least not to all languages.

Last but not least, one of the things I love most about you, Icelandic language, is the wealth of colourful Icelandic idioms and expressions, that would utterly confuse someone if they heard only the literal words without context. For instance:

1. Tíu dropar – Ten drops

“Can’t I offer you a tear…?”

“Just 10 drops, please…”

However odd this conversation might sound in translation, it’s completely normal in Icelandic. It would also be clear to every Icelander that they’re discussing coffee.

Icelanders don’t go in for hyperbole and exaggeration. They tend to downplay things instead, especially housewives in years gone by. Hostesses would pile tables high with several sorts of baked goods and several litres of coffee to go with it, and then apologise for the humble offerings, especially the coffee. In effect, accepting 10 drops of coffee, or even just one tear’s worth would usually result in a huge mug filled to the brim with steaming hot coffee, strong enough to keep you awake for days. A favourite Reykjavík chain of cafés is called “Coffee-tear.”

(Also, confusingly, you can also refer to something as “good coffee,” even if it isn’t coffee. For instance, a band or a movie can be “good coffee”.)

2. Eins og illa gerður hlutur – Like a poorly made object

It’s almost impossible to figure out what some Icelandic idioms mean if you’re not familiar with them (see no. 9) but others are almost self-explanatory.

For example, being like a poorly made object means you’re “standing around being confused, not quite sure what to do with yourself, and not being useful in any way”

So why is that like a poorly made object? Well, picture a workshed, and there are many tools, but one of them is poorly made. It’s likely to break or uncomfortable to use. It would just stand around and do nothing, right? Like a “poorly made object”.

3. Að pissa í skó sinn – Peeing in your shoe

This idiom actually comes from an old Icelandic proverb. The whole thing goes: “Það er skammgóður vermir að pissa í skó sinn” (Peeing in your shoes will only keep you warm for a short while).

At first glance, this might seem like an overly graphic phrase and fairly self-explanatory advice, however, when you consider it, it’s actually a perfect description of something that fixes a problem for a while, but ends up making it worse in the long run. When the winter in Iceland gets so cold it feels like your fingers are about to fall off, it’s tempting to do anything possible to feel warm, even if it’s only for a little while.

Most Icelanders, however desperate, still refrain from peeing themselves, knowing that it will only make them warm for a short while, and afterwards, they’ll not only be cold but also wet and smelling like pee.

4. Að stökkva upp á nef sér – Jumping onto your own nose

One of the beautiful things about Icelandic idioms is that sometimes, even though the words themselves seem like they’ve been chosen at random, the meaning of the phrase is exact and nuanced.

A good example is the Icelandic idiom “jumping onto your own nose”. For some reason, this means getting angry very quickly and without much cause. It even subtly hints that the nose jumper, in fact, has a habit of being easily angered, and should think seriously about his irritability issues.

In the end, it tells you so much more about the situation than if you would simply have been told someone got angry.

5. Rassgat í bala – A butt in a Tub

This is one of the most colourful Icelandic phrases and it’s probably the most popular one to teach non-Icelandic speakers.

A butt in a tub means “nothing at all” and is most commonly used when something turns out to be less than expected. For instance, if you expected to get a lot of money from your lottery ticket, but the tax wound up taking most of it, you say you “didn’t get a butt in a tub!”

The nearest guess that I can make about how the phrase came about is that it’s an aggravated version of the phrase “a pea in a tub”. That one makes more sense: a pea in a tub would seem ridiculously small. It’s also alliterated in Icelandic (baun í bala). When anger strikes, however, it feels good to put “butt” into the sentence wherever you can.

6. Algjört rassgat – An absolute butt

While on the subject of rear ends; one of the weirdest Icelandic slang terms is this: if a baby, or a puppy, or something obscenely cute is being cute, it’s appropriate to call it “just such a butthole….” (rassgat). I’m assuming in most other countries the mother, or puppy-owner, is very likely to get upset and/or offended, but in Iceland, everyone will know that you’re only praising a junior member of the family’s adorableness. I promise. Really, go try it.

I think the original phrase, “raisin-butt” (rúsínurassgat), makes at least a little more sense, since raisins are sweet, but how we got here is anyone’s guess.

7. Ekki upp í nös á ketti – Not enough to fill a cat’s nostril

It’s a way to emphasise how small the amount of something is. When you think about it, it makes sense. Cats are pretty small, and their nostrils therefore even smaller. How a cat’s nostril came to be a unit of measurement is the only part of this I don’t understand. When you’re upset you didn’t get enough of something but you’re not so crass as to start talking about butts, you can just sniff disdainfully and say “it wouldn’t fill a cat’s nostril!”.

8. Undin tuska – A wound-out rag

This describes more of a feeling than a scenario. I’m guessing you can already imagine the feeling, but if you need an explanation, it’s the feeling you get when you’ve been really sick or working really hard, and you just have no energy left. It’s a similar feeling, to quote Bilbo Baggins (and Tolkien), to when you feel like butter, spread over too much bread.

9. Að tefla við páfann – Playing chess with the pope

Playing chess with the pope sounds like the classiest way possible to spend your time. Unfortunately, in Iceland, it doesn’t mean enjoying a dignified pastime with a religious leader, but rather is a polite way to say you’re “going number 2”. We have no information on the pope’s thoughts on the matter, nor his abilities as a chess player.

10. Að hafa ekki gerst svo fræg(ur) – To have not become so famous

This just means you “haven’t tried it (yet)”. So if your friends ask you if you’ve ever peed in your shoes, gone to Disneyland or had an actual chess match with the pope, even the Dalai Lama for that matter, you can answer: “I’ve never become so famous.” It can be used in earnest admiration and longing for the act that hasn’t been performed yet, or as a way of mocking it, depending on the context.

The reason for the phrase has to do with the origin of the word “frægur” – which in Viking times had more in common with eminence, accomplishment and exaltation, rather than fame in its modern form.

Those are some of my favourite colourful Icelandic idioms and phrases, what are yours? Feel free to share them with us on the facebook feed below or send us an email, maybe we’ll put it in the next article!

All illustrations are by Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir

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