During her inauguration speech on August 1, 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir – the world’s first democratically-elected head of state – articulated the importance of words and language to the Icelandic people:
“Words are our castles. In our fewness and penury, we never lost our humanity. We never forgot to put into words – our only enduring material – all of our experiences and thoughts. That is why it is been so easy for us, creating a diverse modern culture.”
Indeed, Icelanders have always been fond of words; Old Norse literature, e.g., consists primarily of Icelandic literature, and it has been claimed that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. In celebration of this fondness, What’s On has gathered together a few famous Icelandic quotes, along with a handful of witty retorts.
The Financial Crisis
The 2008 financial crisis in Iceland involved the default of all three of the country’s major privately-owned banks. Relative to the size of the economy, Iceland’s systemic banking collapse was the largest experienced by any country in economic history.
“I’ve been observing this society for 50 years. It’s disgusting. All of it’s disgusting. There are no principles. No ideals. Nothing. It’s just opportunism – and struggle for power.” (Styrmir Gunnarsson, former editor of Morgunblaðið, in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008.)
“God bless Iceland.” (Former Prime Minister Geir Haarde, ending his television broadcast to the Icelandic nation on October 6, 2008, shortly after the beginning of the financial crisis. Geir’s closing words quickly became a symbol of the crash in Iceland; it is highly unusual for politicians to invoke God in Iceland.)
“What most worries the typical Icelander about corruption is not being able to participate in it himself.“ (Jónas Kristjánsson, writer and journalist, perhaps foreshadowing the Crash in 1993.)
Grit, Guts, and Gameness
Icelanders like to think of themselves as a stubbornly persistent people.
“Let us not mourn his loss – but avenge his death.” (Ólöf Loftsdóttir, after Englishmen killed her husband Björn in the 15th century.)
“For as long as you live, poor wretch, remember always that a woman has beaten you up.“ (Auður Vésteinsdóttir, after having smacked Eyjólf the Grey in the face with a silver purse, in the 10th century.)
“My time will come.“ (Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir in 1994, having lost a bid to head the Social Democratic Party. Fifteen years later, in 2009, her “time came” and she became the world’s first openly LGBT head of government. The phrase has since entered into the idiom.)
“Faith is a reprehensible concept; I endeavour to form an opinion on all things and behave accordingly.” (Helgi Hóseasson, who spent his life campaigning to have his baptismal covenant annulled. He once showered members of parliament with skyr.)
Famous Icelandic Quotes about Sports
Like elsewhere in the world, sports are an important part of life in Iceland.
“You can’t make chicken salad from chickenshit.” (Guðjón Þórðarson, after quitting as head coach of Icelandic football club ÍA. Guðjón was the head coach of English football club Stoke in the early 2000s.)
“There is no reason to be alive if you can’t deadlift.” (Shouted by four-time World Strongest Man winner Jón Páll Sigmarsson, upon winning the deadlift event at Pure Strength competition in 1987, with a world-record lift of 523 kg.)
“Football is a fertility festival. Eleven sperm trying to get into the egg. I feel sorry for the goalkeeper.” (Björk Guðmundsdóttir, singer and activist.)
Witty rejoinders, often rhymed, have long been a kind of national pastime in Iceland.
“It was never my intention to breastfeed the nation.” (Vigdís Finngbogadóttir, when asked during her presidential campaign if having only one breast would negatively impact her presidency. Vigdís underwent a mastectomy in 1978.)
“Is there anything else I can do for you, good sir?“ (Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness, having stepped out of his car to address a careless driver, who had forced him to swerve onto the side of the road to avoid collision.)
“Yes – and all of my unwritten poems are about you.“ (Einar Benediktsson, poet and lawyer, upon being asked by a young woman at the bar: “Aren’t you that poet?”)
“As far as death goes, anything other than the end of the world is beneath me.“ (Einar Benediktsson again, debating what manner of earthly departure would be best, among friends at a Reykjavík coffeehouse.)
Poetry and Profundity
Books remain one of the most popular Christmas gifts in Iceland.
“Those who first kindle the fire rarely enjoy its warmth.“ (Davíð Stefánsson, from the poem The Woman Who Kindles my Oven.)
“Sewn into every man’s dreams are the seeds of his undoing.” (Steinn Steinarr, poet and occasional pessimist.)
“My body is a wonderful instrument, played, alternately, by the angels of heaven, and the demons of the underworld.“ (Þórbergur Þórðarson, in his masterpiece A Letter to Laura. An autodidact and master stylist, Þórbergur remains one of Iceland’s most beloved 20th-century authors.)
Life wouldn’t be much fun if all of us held the same opinions.
“Greta Thunberg says that she speaks for coming generations. What have coming generations done for us? Nothing. What have we done for coming generations? Everything.” (Tweeted by Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurason, professor of political science, who has been critical of Thunberg’s climate-change activism.)