10 untranslatable Norwegian terms
1. Skjerp deg
This phrase does not bode well for you. It usually means you’re making an idiot of yourself. “Skjerp deg” could be translated as “Sharpen yourself up,” and it’s used in all sorts of contexts.
Teachers use it to tell students to pay attention. I yell it at friends who are doing something ridiculous. Cops use it to tell off criminals who are obviously lying to them, parents say it when telling off their five-year old who has just drawn with crayons all over the new wallpaper.
This is a common feature of all the Scandinavian countries: We have a word to describe the feeling of warmth and friendliness that arises from sharing simple pleasures of life with people you like.
Danish hygge, Swedish mys, and Norwegian kos all describe roughly the same thing. We often try to translate it into words such as “nice” or “cozy,” but those only describe parts of what is “kos” or “koselig.” Kos means cuddling with your friend. Kos means being snowed in at your cabin in the mountains, in front of a roaring fire with cocoa, pastries, and a good crime novel.
Kos is a nice lunch in your school cafeteria. Kos is meeting someone you haven’t seen in ages. Kos is a good party. I have even heard people describe their sex life as “kos.” Our lives revolve around “kos.” Even working hard can be koselig, if you’re doing it with people you like.
3. Glad i deg
This one really makes no sense, because word for word it translates as “glad in you.”
In English, you love anyone and anything you have any kind of affection for. You love your child, your spouse, and your parents. You love your friends. You love pizza. Fair enough, thought the Norwegians, but doesn’t that make it a little hard to distinguish who you care the most about?
After all, just using that phrase indicates you have just as much affection for that guy in your class who you’ve known for two months as you have for your brother whom you’ve known your entire life. That seems a little dumb, doesn’t it?
That’s why we have “Glad i deg.” You are “glad i” your close friends. You “elsker” (love) your girlfriend. Elsker either indicates romantic feelings or the kind of love a parent has for their child. It’s a brilliant system. Parents and spouses will also usually use “glad i deg” for text messages and similar, reserving “elsker deg” for those really special occasions.
Straight guys might use glad i deg to one another, but never elsker deg. If you’ve become fond of someone in Norway, say “jeg er glad i deg.” If you say “jeg elsker deg.” don’t expect to hear from them for a few weeks while they finish freaking out about having moved too fast.
4. Takk for sist
After nearly a quarter century in the country, this one still drives my dear mother insane. “Takk for sist” (Thanks for the last time) is what you say to someone you haven’t seen in a while, typically when you bump into them at a party or something similar. Her problem with it: IT HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE! You’re 42 and you bump into a guy you last saw at your college graduation party? “Takk for sist!”
Your auntie gives you a call after you had coffee with her two days ago? “Takk for sist!” This phrase generally comes in three varieties: if someone says it emphatically, they probably really enjoyed your company and found it memorable. In a neutral tone of voice, it’s simply polite. If the person who says it certainly did not enjoy your company, they might say it in a deeply sarcastic tone. It doesn’t have to be spoken, either. If you find dog doo on your doorstep, it might be a “takk for sist” from the guy you punched in the face at a moonshine party a few weeks ago.
Take a peek into an office in Norway anytime between November and April. See everybody staring out the window? What do you think they’re longing for? Well, some of them are probably longing for the beaches of the Canary Islands or Thailand. The others are staring at the woods in the distance.
They are longing for marka — they so desperately want to go on that little skiing trip. Cross-country skiing in the woods means a few hours of solitude, a workout, and some pretty scenery to boot. Marka is the name of any forested areas that surround a city or town. They mostly exist for recreational purposes: people ski, bike, walk, and camp in them. Buses and (in Oslo) subway lines service them. There are massive parking lots at the entrances to these woods. Marka is civilization. Marka is life.
Yes, everyone’s favorite all-purpose Norwegian swearword. While the actual meaning of the word translates to “the devil,” its usage is far broader. It can be a noun, an adjective, an adverb, a preposition… I yell “faen” when I hurt myself. “Fy faen” is to express surprise or disappointment. Faenmeg is just an intensifier. Faenskap is the kind of mean-ish pranks teenagers get up to. Det går til faen means something is about to go horribly wrong. Give me a swearword in any language, and it can probably be translated to “faen.”
This one is also infamous among Norwegians. We eat a lot of bread — 80 kilos of the stuff per person annually. A rather standard Norwegian breakfast and lunch will consist of some slices of bread with something put on them. The English language has a term for the concept — an “open sandwich,” but no word for “whatever you decide to put on the bread.” That is what “pålegg” is for. Salami, ham, cheese, jam, lettuce — everything you put on the bread (except the butter) is pålegg. Confusingly enough, pålegg can also mean an order of the type given by a police officer to a drunk or similar. Don’t confuse these two.
Do you have that friend who always does what his wife and society wants him to do? Whose greatest thrill in life is to put three sugars in his coffee instead of two? Whose last visit to a pub was the night the Berlin Wall fell? He is a tøffelhelt, or a “slipper hero.” There is a certain difference between a “myk mann” (soft man) and a tøffelhelt: The soft man is not afraid to display emotion, he does his share of the housework, and he plays with the kids. But he might also be found watching Champions League football with his buddies after the kids have gone to bed and he has emptied out the dishwasher. He might also speed on the highway, or order the spiciest dish at an Indian restaurant. The slipper hero is not quite so daring.
9. Takk for maten
Some of the etiquette when attending a dinner in a Norwegian home is pretty common. Take your shoes off — we don’t want mud and slush on our floors. Bring a small gift for the host. Show up on time — not late, and certainly not early (since the host may then ask you to pitch in). When everybody is finished eating, everybody says a phrase you have probably never heard. “Takk for maten” just means “Thanks for the food,” and is a way to show gratitude to the cook for the effort she or he took to make the meal. Children in particular are expected to say this. Norwegians who say this abroad often get surprised reactions by the hosts, who assume they thought the food was really, really good.
Visit Norway during the first half of May and it seems like every teenager in the country is dressed in red overalls. This is the most visible part of “russetiden,” a celebration of high school graduation that ends on May 17 — Norway’s Constitution Day. For three weeks (which are, stupidly enough, before exams), high school seniors drink, party, and pull off pranks to let off the steam of 13 years of education. They are called “russ,” wear overalls based on what academic program they attend (red is for general studies, and is by far the most common), hand out “business cards” to little kids (mostly with a raunchy pun on them), and attract disdain from the rest of the populace. The morning of the 17th of May might end in something like this.