Swedish, like any other language, is filled with expressions that obviously have some kind of origin and that probably made sense to the first person ever to speak them. Today, however, these are so wide-spread, maybe even altered a bit, so that they sound like plain nonsense to Swedish learners and when asking a Swede what the fudge they are all about, your question would be answered with a shrug and the words ‘it’s just something we say’.
So what are these expressions? Let’s take a look at a few of them that are still common today but with a more or less forgotten origin.
Grädde på moset – “cream on the mashed potatoes”
For most Swedes, talking about ‘mos’ in general, this is associated with mashed potatoes, which makes this idiom feel odd to say, when you start to think about it’s literal meaning. We are saying ‘whipped cream on mashed potatoes’. What the expression really means is that something is a highlight, it is the ‘grädde’ on something – the whipped cream. The origin is a bit different however. If someone was a picky person, it wouldn’t be enough to eat just mashed apples, because that’s what the ‘mos’ part actually refers to. So, you got some whipped cream on your apples and that became the highlight, the cherry on top. Makes a bit more sense now, doesn’t it?
Varenda kotte – “every pine cone
This is an expression that you will hear in the Swedish version of the Pippi Longstocking theme song – ‘varenda kotte som jag känner’. The expression essentially means everyone, everybody, but to Swedes it sounds like you are saying every cone, a cone from a fir or pine, for example. ‘Kotte’ actually derives from Finnish ‘kotti’ which means boy. So actually, this idiom makes a lot more sense now. Today we aren’t just refering to boys, though, but every person.
Saken är biff – “the matter is steak”
This expression means that something is decided or taken care of. ‘Biff’ is actually an abbreviation and was spelled like ‘bif.’ This is short for ‘bifalles’, which means to be or get granted. This was used within Sweden’s armed forces when a soldiers had some kind of request. If it was granted, the form was marked with the text ‘bif.’. I can vividly imagine a very happy soldier to just got his leave application granted, coming out of the office of his superior and telling his buddies that ‘saken är biff!’.
Idioms make a language more alive and foremost very exciting, especially when the initial meanings are lost and the expressions change over time. They can feel totally normal to use day to day but if you stop and think about them, they sound very weird. To research the ethymology is a lot of fun and easier than you think. A lot isn’t totally lost and is already out there, online, just a few key strokes and clicks away.
For more expressions that don’t make much sense at first, check out my YouTube video on the matter.
Written by Joakim Andersson
Joakim is a Swedish musician, YouTuber, Podcaster, and entrepreneur who calls himself an enjoyer of life. He is the founder of Say It In Swedish, which is a podcast, web and mobile app, and YouTube channel that teaches modern Swedish in a fun and easy-going way for free. Check it out at Say It In Swedish.