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Norwegian Phrases: Common Sayings in Norway

Man speaking Norwegian into a tin can telephone

Norwegian has plenty of quirky sayings that teach you a lot about the society and culture. Here's a small collection of them to get you started.

It's one thing trying to learn a language in class or from textbooks, but a language only really comes alive when you understand the words, phrases and sayings that just don't translate.

Most countries around the world have their own unique phrases where meaning isn’t always obvious from the words themselves. The sayings or idioms often sound odd just based on the words themselves, especially when directly translated.

If you're learning Norwegian there's a weird and wonderful collection of Norwegian phrases to learn. There are many that only have subtle differences from English equivalents. I hope you enjoy this article because it was great fun to write!

Online courses: Norwegian Class 101 / The Mystery of Nils

If you're learning Norwegian, don't forget to check out the other posts on our language learning blog.

det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær

Depending on the time of year you arrive, this is probably the first Norwegian saying that newcomers hear. Usually, you hear it whilst dripping with rainwater, wringing out your soaking wet socks, before a trip to the nearest outdoor clothing store.

Trondheim in snowstorm
Remember, there's no such thing as bad weather…

The meaning is fairly obvious, I think! But you can read a full article about the phase here. Norwegians love the outdoors and nothing—not even snow or a rainstorm—will stop them from enjoying it!

å stå/sitte med skjegget i postkassen

To stand or sit with the beard in the mailbox is a strange expression, but the meaning is fairly easy to work out! It simply means to be stuck in an uncomfortable situation. For example you've done something stupid or been caught cheating.

det var helt texas

The phrase “it was totally Texas!” may be heard in reference to a wild party, a toxic atmosphere at a sports game, or even crazy traffic, not that the latter occurs very often in Norway. Although the expression became widely known outside the country when US-based media jumped on the bandwagon a couple of years ago, it actually dates back several decades.

Helt Texas a Norwegian saying

The original meaning of the phrase was to compare something to the cowboys of the old Wild West, in terms of their unpredictability, and an exciting and/or scary atmosphere. These days it's more likely to indicate something is totally crazy or bonkers.

man skal ikke skue hunden på hårene

The Norwegian equivalent of you shouldn't judge a book by its cover literally translates as you shouldn't judge a dog by its hairs!

Online courses: Norwegian Class 101 / The Mystery of Nils

å være midt i smørøyet

To understand the phrase “to be in the middle of the butter eye” you need to understand Norwegian cuisine. The dish of risgrøt, a warm porridge, is traditionally served with a dollop of butter that melts into the middle, leaving a hole, known as the butter eye.

To be there simply means to be in a good place. And who wouldn't want to be melting into the middle of a bowl of porridge!?

Traditional risgrøt
Traditional risgrøt. Photo: Ken (Wikipedia)

gammel vane er vond å vende

English translation: Old habbits is difficult to turn.
It is the same as the English saying, “Old habits die hard” and means it is hard to stop doing something you have being doing for a significant length of time.

ugler i mosen

English translation: Owls in the moss. It means that something is happening that is suspicious or amiss. “Ugler I mosen” is of Danish origin and was originally  “wolves in the marshes”; but it is said that when wolves disappeared from the wild in Denmark, the saying evolved into owls.

There is also a 1959 Norwegian film written and directed by Ivo Caprino called Ugler I mosen; its title is derived from the idiom, “I smell a rat; there is mischief afoot”.

morgenstund har gull i munn

English translation: Morning time is gold in the mouth. This is an expression that comes from Old Norse, North Germanic language. In Icelandic, the saying is,” morning time gives gold in the hand”, meaning, if you get up early enough you can achieve more.

It is similar to the English saying the “the early bird catches the worm”. You can read more about it on this blog (in Norwegian)

eplet faller ikke langt fra stammen

English translation: The apple doesn’t fall far from the trunk. This saying is essentially the same as the English, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. It typically means that children show the same traits as their parents.

A red apple fallen from the tree

like barn leker best

English translation: Similar children play best. This one is similar to the English phrase, “Birds of a feather flock together“. It usually means, people (or children in the Norwegian version) with the same tastes and interests will be found together.

(man kan ikke få) både i pose og sekk

English translation: One can't get both the bag and sack. This phrase is a figure of speech that is broadly equivalent to you can't have your cake and eat it. It can infer an impossible action or behaviour. Evidence suggests it was first used some time around the sixteenth century.

Online courses: Norwegian Class 101 / The Mystery of Nils

førstemann til mølla

English translation: First man to the mill’ or sometimes just ‘first to the mill. It literally means, first come first served – in Norwegian, the first to the mill gets the flour (and usually a competition is involved when using this saying).

smi mens jernet er varmt

English translation: forge while the iron is hot. The English version is “to strike while the iron is hot“. It means to do something quickly at an opportunistic/ideal moment.

storm i et vannglass

English translation: Storm in a glass of water. This Norwegian phrase is the same as the British English saying “storm in a teacup”. It means, an exaggeration of a trivial matter.

Storm in a glass of water

som plommen i egget

English translation: Like the yolk in the eggIt means to feel good in a certain instance, like starting a new job or being somewhere nice on holiday – everything is good, I am content.

bedre føre var (enn etter snar)

English translation: Better before than looking back in regret. Bedre føre var’ is the most common usage. It's a phrase that means to take a precaution and not take an unnecessary risk.

bedre sent enn aldri

English translation: Better late than never. This one is the same as the English variant and is pretty self-explanatory.

øving gjør mester

English translation: Practice makes perfect. Again, this is another one that is the same as the English equivalent and it means to do something over and over until perfection is achieved.

fra asken til ilden

English translation: from the ashes to the fire. This phrase means, going from one bad thing to another. And is similar to the English saying, “out of the frying pan into the fire”.

ta med en klype salt

English translation: Take with a pinch of salt. This is a figure of speech that stems from the idea that it is easier to eat something with a little salt, and it means not to take something or someone too seriously.

ta for god fisk

English translation: Take for a good fish. This saying means to believe in something someone says or take someone’s word for granted; believe in what you are told and accept it without doubting; you are assuming it’s a good fish as opposed to a bad one. It is a phrase thats goes a little beyond the English saying, “I’ll take your word for it”.

aldri for sent å snu

English translation: It’s never too late to turnaround.

What's your favourite Norwegian phrase?

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About the Author: Mathew Paul Gundersen

Mathew is an English – part Norwegian – guy living in Oslo, where he is a master's student in Ibsen Studies at the University of Oslo. In June 2019, he graduated with a bachelor degree in English Literature from the University of Buckingham. Mathew is also a writer, an English teacher, media specialist and general Norway enthusiast. His Great Grandfather was Norwegian and this is what brought about an initial move to Norway and Stavanger in 2016. Mathew's personal blog can be found here: godfoten.wordpress.com.

10 Comments

  1. Most amusing. But as another norwegian speaking brit, I think you have omitted
    “Det holder det sa Gundersen…..”!!!!!!!

  2. My daughter and family live in Nøtterøy,and we have visited many times. Sayings i like include ‘ I like måte'( you too), glad i deg( i love you), and har det godt(take care); and of course there are many more. Norway is such a beautiful,unspoilt country, and we have 2 teenage grandsons born and raised there.
    T

  3. Excellent, Mathew! This is the first time I have a really great compilation of idioms, which is important to learn when one is learning a new language.

    Tusen takk!

    Ruthie

  4. It was great to know sayings from a Country across the world. Tusen takk!
    My favourites.
    1) å være midt i smørøyet
    I like this one because it sounds delicious. Norwegian has got delicious sayings. 😄

    2)eplet faller ikke langt fra stammen
    I like this one because I could understand it at once!

  5. For all the travelers out there: Borte bra, men hjemme best! Away is good, but home is best.

    and this one serves us well too when trying to use our new language! “Drikk for mot” which means liquid courage.

    Thanks for the compilation of phrases they are great!

  6. My personal favorite is “Ut på tur, aldri sur!” which basically means “out for a walk, you’re never grumpy.” My mother-in-law says it when she’s heading out to walk the dog.

  7. My mother always prefaced a request for us to do something, with “Du, som er saa snil”….”You, who are so kind”…….

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