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10 Fascinatingly Untranslatable Norwegian Words

Norway Student Work Languages
by Kenneth Haug Jul 17, 2015

1. Uting

Directly translated, it means «unthing.» Figuratively translated, it usually describes a bad habit or tradition — of which, of course, there are many. The sudden elevation of coeliac disease into the realm of coolness is a definite “uting.” The flying of Confederate flag by hillbillies in rural Norway who have never set foot outside of Scandinavia — *huge* uting. Knuckle cracking, cellphones ringing in church…the list goes on and on.

2. Innlevelse

Innlevelse describes how well you are able to “live” as a character. Remember Sean Connery’s not-even-trying Russian accent in The Hunt for Red October? That was really poor innlevelse. Good innlevelse means you try to think and act as the character — that when you are on stage or on camera, you stop being Johnny Depp and start being Jack Sparrow. You are not Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow — you are Jack Sparrow, nothing else. That kid with really good innlevelse at your daughter’s elementary school play — he’s got an acting career ahead of him.

3. Hawaiifotball

This one is oddly specific, referring to the sport of football (soccer to some). Hawaiifotball arises when both teams log the ball back and forth haphazardly, never really gain control, and can’t sustain an attack or any sort of coordinated play for more than 15 seconds. Typically, this happens when both teams have stopped caring and/or have a lapse in concentration. If you think about it, though, it can be used to describe most sports: in basketball, when the game is locked into teams scoring in succession, and every single attempt is getting through. In (American) football, when teams are racking up three-and-outs like there was no tomorrow. Every team sport has situations like this.

4. Folkefest

Do you remember that one time the biggest sports team in the country came to the little village you grew up in? How entire families came to the stadium, beer and hot dogs were passed around, the weather was great, and it eventually just became a big party? Your local team was utterly trounced, but everyone was having a great time. A folkefest, literally a “people’s party,” is just that kind of event. A sporting meet, a large concert, any kind of festival…if it gathers people from all walks of life, and serves to unite whole communities into an orgy of food, drink, good vibrationsTM and everything else that is good, it is a folkefest.

5. Harry

Very often this expression is translated as cheesy, which does not do it justice at all. “Harry” is a sort of merger of everything that represents cheesiness, ignorance, hickiness and everything else non-trendy. We wouldn’t describe the movie Sharknado as harry, because even if it is amazingly cheesy it doesn’t represent something specifically out of fashion. Laconic as we are, we would probably simply describe it as shit. Country music, on the other hand…dear God, that is harry. Also, anything from the city of Drammen. No further explanation required.

6. Ildsjel

You know that one person in your town who coaches and basically runs the entire sports club, sits on the town council, helps out at the homeless shelter, organizes community events and acts as a mentor to every teenager in town — all without asking a single penny for his services? They are an ildsjel — a fire soul, literally translated. Due to the Nordic social model and the small size of most of our towns, Norwegian civil society basically runs on these men and women. They are so important that the “Ildsjel of the Year” prize is awarded at the same ceremony as all of the other major sports awards. Without them, this country would become an incredibly dull and cold place.

7. Attpåklatt

Jimmy, who sat next to you in 1st grade, had two siblings who were both in college. But all three kids were born to the same two parents. Norwegian has a separate word for this: attpåklatt means something along the lines of “blot on top”, and describes a child who was born a long time after the “main” bunch of kids in the family. After raising the two or three first children past the point where parenthood stops being “24/7 suicide prevention”, mom and dad were able to focus on each other again, reinserting some passion into the relationship. Some months later, mom was suddenly pregnant. The new kid may be an accident, or the result of one parent saying, “hey, want to have another kid?” — but they will be loved and cherished just as much by their parents, and probably spoiled rotten by the older siblings.

8. Tropenatt

Warm weather is in relatively short supply this far north. Even during the summer, when daytime temperatures can easily reach 25 C in the southern half of the country, you are advised to bring a sweater and/or jacket if you want to stay out at night. The mercury just drops that fast. On some very rare occasions (such as last summer, when half of us died of heat exhaustion), we have a “tropenatt” — a tropical night. The scientific(-ish) definition of a tropenatt requires the temperature to stay above 20 C (68 F) for all of the 12-hour span between 20:00 and 08:00. These occasions are held in high regard and cherished for all they are worth by the night owls.

9. Døgn

Why is there no word in English for “the period between midnight and the next midnight”? No, I don’t mean “day” — that can mean both the 24-hour period and “not night.” Norwegian døgn refers to any period of 24 hours. It’s simple, and incredibly useful in ways you wouldn’t imagine! Say that the US government has given another country 72 hours to comply (not that they would ever do such a thing) — Norwegian newspapers won’t write “72 timer” in their headlines, they will write “3 døgn.” Gas stations don’t have 24 hour opening hours, they have “døgnåpent” — døgn open. Simple and brilliant.

10. Drittsekk

This word gained some notoriety in the UK in 1993, when Norwegian Minister of the Environment Thorbjørn Berntsen rather openly disagreed with his British counterpart. By rather openly disagreed, I mean “hated his guts.” Some microphone caught Berntsen saying something which British media translated as “he is the biggest shitbag I have ever met.” When asked to comment, the Ministry simply issued a press release stating “It doesn’t sound as bad in Norwegian.” They were absolutely right — “drittsekk” is certainly a loaded word, and not one you throw around lightly. But metaphorically speaking it simply translates to “jerk” or “son of a bitch.” Several US presidents have described allied dictators as “an SOB, but our SOB” — the Norwegian translation is usually “en drittsekk, men vår drittsekk.” Mr. Berntsen was certainly not being polite, but his choice of words is one that is shouted in recess fights at Norwegian schools every day. Not some super-insult that the British government should interpret as a diplomatic incident.

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