Swedish idioms and the sum of all cardamom

By Christian Nielsen

If I were to vanish into thin air,  my Swedish in-laws would have a suitable expression for this otherworldly disappearance – I would ‘go upp i rök'.

22 September 2009

Of course, we have the same expression in English – to go up in smoke – but to my ear it has a slightly different connotation, applying more to aspirations, hopes or expectations rather than something or someone just disappearing mysteriously.

Now if someone, say my in-laws again, were actually willing me to vanish into thin air, then we might have some sort of odd parity between idioms.

This is just one example of the many possible subtle differences between largely similar expressions in Swedish and English, but there are a great many expressions that pair up quite beautifully, and about as many bizarre ones.

I'm no linguist beyond necessity so this musing may all sound rather ham-fisted, but I will persist at the very least as an exercise to improve my Swedish. Bear with me, though, because Swedes really have colourful, often simple, ways of saying things.

What you may also learn here is that English doesn't have an exclusive on rich turns of phrase and that the Swedes are actually quite odd at times, despite everything you might hear or think you know about them.

If you need more proof, I highly recommend you read ‘Fishing in Utopia – Sweden and the future that disappeared', or gick upp i rök you could say, by Andrew Brown.

It's an unusual book, part political commentary and part personal diary delivered under the guise of a fishing story – a metaphor for ‘the one that got away', the Social Democrats' perhaps fading hopes for a durable folkhem or welfare state.

Brown whittles away at the stereotypes and reveals a culture where mythical creatures like the vätte (gnome-like folk whose ministering are part mischief part munificence) still occupy a corner of the house that modernity and IKEA built.

If you don't believe my recommendation, then maybe you'll believe Jeremy Paxman, the famously acerbic presenter of News Night and other programmes on the BBC, who wrote in the Guardian that Brown's book was “a beguiling account of one man's absorption in and by a country [] … terrific.”

All that glitters…

I'm sure there are perfectly good reasons, historical or cultural, for expressions to be the same or similar in different languages. But it still strikes me as pretty weird, cool even, that this mash-up of idioms, of metaphor and simile, occurs as often as it does. To illustrate, I'll start with a few of my favourite, almost perfectly matching, phrases:

  • Drink somebody under the table (is the same in Swedish or = to) dricka någon under bordet
  • (To leave) with your tail between the legs = med svansen mellan benen
  • She's got a bun in the oven = hon har en bulle i ugnen
  • (Have) butterflies in the tummy = ha fjärilar i magen
  • Have your cake and eat it = äta kakan och ha den kvar
  • Burn the candle at both ends = bränna sitt ljus i båda ändar
  • Castles in the air = luftslott
  • The cat has nine lives = katten har nio liv
  • All that glitters isn't gold = allt är inte guld som glimmar
  • Happy as a lark = glad som en lärka
  • Have many irons in the fire = ha många järn i elden
  • You must learn to crawl before you can run = man måsta lära sig att krypa innan man kan gå
  • All's fair in love and war = i krig och kärlek är allt tillåtet
  • Get a dose of your own medicine = få smaka sin egen medicin
  • Look for a needle in the haystack = leta efter en nål i en höstack
  • Pride goes before a fall = högmod går före fall
  • Have a screw loose = ha en skruv lös
  • Be armed to the teeth = vara beväpnad till tänderna

I've got a goose to pluck with you!

Now, here are a few expressions with a Swedish equivalent but which use different comparisons that you‘ve gotta love:

  • The rat race (is not quite the same or » in Swedish to) ekorrhjulet (squirrel wheel)
  • (Life) is no bed of roses » livet är ingen dans på rosor (life's no dance on roses)
  • Upset somebody's applecart » sätta en käpp i hjulet för någon (put a stick in someone‘s wheel)
  • Have a bone to pick with someone » ha en gås att plocka med någon (have a goose to pluck with someone)
  • Busy as a bee » flitig some en myra (busy as an ant)
  • Like a bull in a china shop » som en elefant i en porslinsbutik (like an elephant in a china shop)
  • Sell like hotcakes » gå åt som smör i solsken (melt like butter in the sun)
  • Cool as a cucumber » lugn som en filbunke (calm as a bowl of yoghurt)
  • Keep you fingers crossed » hålla tummarna (hold your thumbs)
  • Promise heaven and earth » lova någon guld och gröna skogar (promise someone gold and green forests)

The sum of all cardamom

Of course, in some cases with idiom you'd struggle to see the connection, or even fathom where the expressions (in either ) came from in the first place. But it's worth taking a look at a few of these plain old weird expressions as well:

  • Raise a stink about something (in Swedish goes something like or ≠) ställa till rabalder om något (cause an outrage about something)
  • Ugly as sin ≠ ful som stryk (ugly as a beating)
  • I wouldn't touch it with a bargepole ≠ jag skulle inte vilja ta i den med tång (I wouldn't want to touch it with pliers)
  • Blowed/darned/buggared if I know ≠ det vete katten! (the cat would know)
  • Be up shit creek ≠ sitta i klistret (stuck in glue)
  • He has cooked his goose ≠ han har satt sin sista potatis (he has planted his last potato)
  • Just sour grapes ≠ surt, sa räven om rönnbären (sour said the fox about the rowanberries)
  • Take a running jump ≠ dra åt skogen/dit pepparn växer (go to the forest/where the pepper grows)

And my all-time favourite Swedish expression…

  • In the end/it all adds up to/the bottom line ≠ summan av kardemumman (the sum of the cardamom)

What can I say? Pure magic – at least deserving of a cool band name or Dan Brown title.


  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, EU affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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9 thoughts on “Swedish idioms and the sum of all cardamom

  • Chris (Chronikler)

    Indeed, “a stunned mullet” would cover it pretty well. You’ve reminded of another classic: “go the raw prawn”. Have to see if my wife has one for that. Doubt it.

  • Jan Pinder

    That should of course have been: I like “to feel like a clubbed seal”

  • Jan Pinder

    I like to feel like a clubbed seal — for an Australian, that would be a stunned mullet, wouldn’t it?

    I first became aware how close Swedish sayings could be to English when a Swedish friend said solemnly “and I – as we say in Swedish – put all my eggs in one basket”!

  • Like it a lot. I definitely recommend you read Andrew Brown’s book if you haven’t already. It’ll ring true of your years in SE.

    Am in Stockholm now ‘running round like a blue-arsed fly’. A little Australianism for you. But this could be a local – even familial – expression. I’ll have to check that one day.

    Cheers Chris

  • Haha this is awesome! My parents are iraqi and both arabic, kurdish and turkish were spoken around me as a child until I joined a school were most subjects were taught in English. At the age of 13 I moved to Sweden and came to love my new country. Now I live in England and am married to an Afrikaans girl and can’t get enough of these cross-linguistic moments!!

    As much as I enjoyed the Swedish quotes, my contribution has to be the classic afrikaans version of having a screw loose:

    nie al sy varke is gevries

    Not all his pigs are locked!!!!


  • I’d hate to think how that one evolved, Anna. I’m guessing you’d probably feel like a clubbed seal after drinking something under the table, right?

  • The same goes for both expressions in Swedish

    Drink somebody under the table
    Dricka någon under bordet

    Have a screw loose
    Ha en skruv lös

    One that doesn’t exist in either English och Flemish I am sure is the following Swedish expression:

    Att känna sig som en klubbad säl
    To feel like a clubbed seal (being totally without energy)

  • KhaledDiab

    Johan, there are also some that are related but different in amusing ways. In English, we say, ‘pull someone’s leg’. In Dutch, it’s ‘met iemand zijn voeten spelen’ (play with someone’s feet).

  • Moreover in Dutch-Flemish that is:
    Drink somebody under the table
    Iemand onder tafel drinken

    Have a screw loose
    Een vijs los hebben (not being sane in the head)


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