Painting an Image with Words

Painting an Image with Words

There ​​are many old, funny expressions, metaphors, and proverbs that have a permanent place in the Swedish language. Sometimes, sayings survive for hundreds of years, and sometimes new and trendy idioms are created. Nowadays, with outlets like Twitter they can be created quickly and spread even faster.

I think these idioms and proverbs are what add color and personality to a language. It is like painting an image with words, creating an association in your mind. People who are not native speakers might find grasping the true meaning of these sayings quite difficult. Newcomers trying to put their language skills to use almost always get them wrong, and it’s hard to keep a straight face.

idiomatic expressions

Like any native speaker and translator, I keep tabs on different types of idiomatic expressions. Language students often ask me for advice dealing with the problems that arise when trying to understand the old sayings. How could we all learn these expressions in any language?

A Reference Book Might Exist

but you are better off seeking advice from native speakers who are able to train you in colloquialisms, because many sayings are often not mentioned in language reference publications.

In Swedish, there are many sayings that you might also find in the English language, and that are translateable almost word-for-word, like:

En droppe i havet = A drop in the ocean,

Kasta in handduken = Throw in the towel,

Öga för öga = An eye for an eye, or

Förlora ansiktet = To lose face.

It Becomes More Complicated

It’s worse when expressions are hard to understand or translate correctly, if you are not a native speaker, or even guess if you think your own native tongue might have an equivalent:

Kyss Karlsson = Kiss Karlsson (Karlsson is a common family name)

Meaning: ‘Wow! You don’t say!’

Goddag yxskaft! = Hallo ax handle!

Meaning: a response to when someone does not answer your question correctly.

Finns det hjärterum så finns det stjärterum = If there is a place for the heart, there will be a place for the butt.

Meaning: everything can be fixed.

Ta i med hårdhanskarna = Put the tough gloves on.

Meaning: now it’s time to get tough!

Grädde på moset = Cream on the mashed potatoes.

Meaning: The icing on the cake.

These are examples of common sayings and expressions that have been around for a long time.  When a person is new to a language and gets just one single word wrong in a saying, the result can be amusing, if not confusing.

It Is Even More Confusing When New Expressions Are Created

One example became very common about ten years ago, when Pål Jebsen, a communications strategist, commented on a politician in an interview by saying: Han gör en hel pudel, which translates to “He made a complete poodle.” What Jebsen said means “He went back on his word and apologized,” in English.

Today, people have become familiar the expression and use it frequently. In my mind, the image is clear: I see an embarrassed person lying on their backs and kicking their legs in the air, like a poodle.

About Jeanette Gardner

I am a native Swedish translator living on an island in the Swedish Archipelago. I have worked as a professional trilingual translator (Swedish, German, and English) for more than 20 years. A translator, editor, and writer, I formerly worked for the largest publisher in Sweden.


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