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Owls in the marsh? Nine animal idioms to level up your Swedish

Idiomatic expressions are some of the most fun parts of any language, but among the trickiest to master. Here are nine peculiar Swedish sayings with an animalistic theme, plus an explanation of what they mean and how to use them.

Owls in the marsh? Nine animal idioms to level up your Swedish
What does the cat know? Take a step closer to fluency by learning these Swedish animal idioms. Photo: Cyrus Chew/Unsplash

Tjuta med vargarna | To howl with the wolves

Wolves are pack animals, so howling along with them means agreeing with the majority, without engaging in critical thinking. It’s an old saying, and isn’t always meant in a negative way: 18th century Swedish writer Carl von Linné wrote that anyone with a family needs to howl with the wolves in order to live with them, meaning that sometimes it’s better not to rock the boat.

If you want to criticize someone with a tendency to do this, an even blunter phrase that could come in handy is ‘bara döda fiskar följer strömmen‘ (only dead fish follow the stream).

Ha en gås oplockad med någon | To have an unplucked goose with someone

If you’ve got an unplucked goose with someone, it’s got nothing to do with preparing a meal together, but rather it means there’s unfinished business between the two of you or things that need to be said. In English you’d say you “had a bone to pick”.

Photo: Julian Dutton/Unsplash

Man ska inte döma hunden efter håren | You shouldn’t judge a dog by its fur

In English we say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ to warn people against making assessments of someone based on superficial criteria. But since book covers are usually designed carefully by a team of professionals who consult with the author while a dog rarely gets a say in its grooming, this Swedish animal-based alternative might be even more suitable.

Ana ugglor i mossen | To sense owls in the marsh

If you suspect there might be owls in the marsh, it means there might be trouble or danger ahead — the English equivalent would be “to smell a rat”. But why owls? 

One theory is that the Swedish phrase is a corruption of the Danish idiom “der er ulve i mosen” (there’s a wolf in the marsh) which makes a little more sense. The two were easily confused since the ‘v’ is often silent in Danish ulve, sounding like the word for ‘owls’, which is ‘ugle‘ in Danish or ‘uller‘ in some dialects.

An old Scandinavian folklore belief that murdered children were sometimes transformed into owls may have contributed to the changed meaning.

And another animal-themed phrase that means more or less the same thing is “det ligger en hund begraven” (there’s a dog buried here). In other words, something bad or unpleasant has been concealed.

Photo: Zdeněk Macháček/Unsplash

Det vete katten | The cat knows

Cats are often associated with mystical powers, whether for good or evil, and this phrase could be translated as ‘only the devil knows’ or ‘God knows’ — you use it to show you don’t have an answer.

Fun fact for Stockholmers: Vete-Katten is the name of a traditional bakery and cafe, which supposedly got its name when someone asked the owner what her shop would be called. “Ah, det vete katten,” she replied.

Det finns ingen ko på isen | There’s no cow on the ice

If someone tells you there’s no cow on the ice, what they mean is ‘don’t worry’ or possibly ‘don’t worry just yet’. 

This popular saying is actually a short version of the full idiom, which is: “det är ingen ko på isen så länge rumpan är i land” or in English, “there’s no cow on the ice as long as the buttock is on land”. That’s the cow’s buttock we’re talking about, so the idea is that as long as the animal is at least partly safe, you shouldn’t worry about the danger. An English equivalent might be “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”, meaning not to worry about a problem until it’s certain to happen.

Sweden has long been a farming country, so having your prize cow wander out onto potentially thin or slippery ice would be a very big problem indeed. 

Photo: Jonathan Bölz/Unsplash

Alla känner apan, apan känner ingen | Everyone knows the ape, but the ape knows nobody

Think about a monkey at a zoo or in a circus, surrounded by eager spectators. Each of them is aware if the ape, but he doesn’t know anything about the people gawping at him.

This idiom could have positive or negative connotations, depending on whether you’re keen to stand out and be known for being an individual, or whether you’re worried of being known for strange behaviour and would rather blend into the background.

Köp inte grisen i säcken | Don’t buy the pig in the bag

Have you ever paid money for something which you later realised, on closer inspection, didn’t live up to the promise? The Swedes have a saying for that. Buying a pig in a sack is a way of saying you’ve bought something without closely checking the product and any terms and conditions — it comes from a time when unscrupulous market sellers might put a large rat or a cat in a bag and pass it off to buyers as a (more valuable) pig.

This idiom also exists in many other languages, although it usually translates as ‘to buy the cat in the bag’ rather than pig. This context is also the origin of the English phrase ‘to let the cat out of the bag’, meaning to reveal a secret.

Photo: Christopher Carson/Unsplash

Man ska inte väcka den björn som sover | You shouldn’t wake a bear that’s sleeping

This one is just sage advice, really. English speakers would say “let sleeping dogs lie” as a warning not to reawaken old, half-forgotten arguments or grudges, but in Sweden the wildlife is a bit more threatening, and that translates to its idioms too. 

Photo: Anthony Renovato/Unsplash

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