1. Að pissa í skó sinn | Peeing in your shoe.
This idiom 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 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.
2. Algjört rassgat | An absolute butt
If a baby, or a puppy, or something obscenely adorable is being cute, it’s appropriate to call it “just such a butthole” (rassgat). I’m assuming that in most 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 their 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.
3. 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. Cats are pretty small, 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!”.
4. 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.
5. Rassgat í bala | A butt in a Tub
A butt in a tub mean’s “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. 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 the beverage, 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.
7. Undin tuska | A wound-out rag
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.
8. Að hafa ekki gerst svo fræg(ur) | To have not become so famous
If your friends ask you if you’ve ever peed in your shoes, or had an actual chess match with the pope, 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.
9. Eins og illa gerður hlutur | Like a poorly made object.
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”.
10. Að stökkva upp á nef sér | Jumping onto your own nose
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.
All illustrations are by Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir
This article was originally published on What’s On and is reposted here with permission.