18 September, 2018

Weird Swedish Expressions

Ad by Swedish with Mumm

When you are learning a new language, it isn’t necessarily a grasp of grammar or a large vocabulary that will make you feel like “you get” a language. It is instead when you start learning (and using) the sounds and expressions that are typical of that language.  

I teach Swedish on a daily basis and it isn’t uncommon that my students arrive at our classes thoroughly baffled by one, or many, expressions they have heard either in Swedish or sometimes even directly translated to English. And trust me, if an expression is confusing in the original language, it gets way worse when translated by a well-meaning Swede into, for instance, English.  

So here are a few commonly confusion inducing Swedish expressions and their meanings:  

Smaken är som baken – delad

The taste is like the bum – split 

This has no grave physical meaning but simply explains that we all have different tastes and that my taste can be different from yours, his or her taste. So all in all, this expression shows a great deal of tolerance.  

Jag håller tummarna

I’m holding the thumbs

For some reason, thumbs have gotten the good end of the body part stick and are considered bringers of luck in Sweden. And so “att hålla tummarna” is a way to explain that the person is rooting or hoping for something. In English, the equivalent would be “fingers crossed”. Which body part is considered especially lucky in your country? 

När man talar om trollen, så står de i farstun…

When you speak of the trolls, they stand in the hall…

Trolls have long appeared in Swedish folklore and if you haven’t yet checked out the Swedish artist John Bauer, I highly recommend you do so for a bit of “troll” inspiration. This saying, however, implies that if you speak about someone, he or she will suddenly appear. The English version of this saying is probably “When you speak of the devil…”. 

Slå huvudet på spiken

Hit the head on the nail (not your own head but the head of the nail) 

Swedes are not necessarily advocating self-abuse so when you “slår huvudet på spiken”, you have gotten something right, you’ve hit the mark so to speak. 

Glida in på en räkmacka

To slide in on a shrimp sandwich 

If you’ve been in Sweden for a while, you will have noticed that shrimp sandwiches are very popular (almost up there with kanelbullar.) However, they are rarely used as a means of transport. Sliding in on a shrimp sandwich means to be lucky and succeed without effort (often thanks to good connections). What would one say in your language?  

Leva loppan

Live the flea 

Thankfully, our homes are mostly devoid of fleas nowadays but back in the days when living conditions were a bit harsher, the only ones who would appreciate the cramped living conditions, where in fact the fleas. So att leva loppan, means to have a great time, to party and to paint the town red. All in all, good things for both humans and fleas, but usually not preferred (at least by humans) in the same space.  

Inget att hänga i julgranen

Nothing to hang in the Christmas tree 

Who wouldn’t want to put the shiniest, prettiest things in their Christmas tree? Well, in Sweden if it isn’t good enough, it doesn’t get the front seat during Christmas and so this expression tells us that something that isn’t good enough to hang in the Christmas tree, is not special or good enough.  

Nu ska det bli andra bullar

Now there will be other buns  

Anyone who has been around Swedes long enough, know how importantly Swedes take their “fika”. Buns are naturally an important part of this ritual. Saying that there will be “andra bullar” means that from now on there will be new, more strict rules and routines. 

These expressions are neither the first thing you learn nor the most important phrases when starting to learn Swedish but will definitely make you feel more like a part of Swedish society. If you are eager to learn Swedish, just contact me, Nina at Swedish with Mumm and we will create together the ultimate learning experience, either face to face or online.  



Don’t miss out! Get updates on new articles, opportunities and other goodies by signing up for our newsletter.

Nina Mumm on Facebook
Nina Mumm
Hello! I am a Swedish language consultant and cross-cultural trainer who has many years of experience working with expat clients in Sweden. My professional focus continues to be teaching Swedish with a cross-cultural approach and supporting international clients in their adaptation to the Swedish culture.

One Comment on “Weird Swedish Expressions

Harry Lythall
10 October, 2019 at 13:02

Hello Nina,
I read this page with great interest. One expression you used was “… it isn’t uncommon …”, which is a double negative. At shool I was chastised by my English teacher for using double negatives, so I began to use phrases such as “… yes, I am very gruntled!”. Disgruntled is unhappy, but there is no way to phrase “I’m not disgruntled” without using a double negative, but I digress.

A lot of Swedish is very strange to the new arrival, and some things cannot be taught in the classroom. Soon after I came to Sweden I was asked to buy a bottle, or a flower, as we were invited to a friend for an evening meal. My wife explained to me that in Sweden it is a customary to give a bottle or plant to your hostt.

When I arrived home with the plant my wife was really upset. “What HAVE you bought? We can’t give him that!”. She explained that he was homosexual, and you cannot give a homosexual man a ficus as a present. How was I supposed to know that “ficus” has a double meaning?

As an immigrant find that I often deliberately misuse Swedish and get away with it. “Harry, where is David?”. I reply “He’s in the fikus room with the boys!” 🙂

As a radio amateur I used digital modes to communicate with operators around the world, but these Swedish letters can be a problem on a digital radio channel. As a bit of fun I once wrote “Regards from Harry, Upplands Väsby (with two pricks over the ‘a’)”. Radio hams around the world thought it was hillarious, but Swedish radio hams tried to teach me English.

Another incident occured when tried to ask a nice young lady what the time was. I translated as best I could “Have you got the right time on you?”, exactly as I would say it in England. The young lady was really offended and thought I was trying proposition her for sex. I know now that I should have asked “How many are the bell?” (hur mycker är klockan?).

I had fun readig your article and I hope that you can add to the page. Tjhank you for an interesting hour.

Best regards – Harry

Leave a Reply