Illustration: Tom Espen de Bourg 2015 for

Confusing things Norwegians say

Illustration: Tom Espen de Bourg 2015 for
Illustration: Tom Espen de Bourg 2015 for

Sometimes I have to blink my eyes three times when I hear things that come out of Norwegian people’s mouths.
I imagined this dialogue between me and a Norwegian for Norwegian native speakers to see what your expressions sound to our delicate (and foreign) ears.

Ola: There is something muffens here, it seems like there are owls are in the moss.

Me: Why would owls be eating muffins in the moss? A new organic recipe of muffins made of moss?


Ola: His red and blue T-shirts “I <3 King Harald” have been selling like minced shit, and his treasure declaration shows almost no benefit. So he probably has pigs on the forest.

Me: Does shit cost more when it is minced? Why are the pigs on the forest and not in the forest? And what does that have to do with a treasure?


Ola: This guy seems to be high in the hat. We really need to catch him, bu you know what they say, “Everything makes a difference said the mouse pissing in the sea”. We might end up once again with the beard in the mailbox.


Vocabulary list for confused foreigners:

muffens: muffens is often mistaken for “muffins” (the little cake). It actually means sometimes mysterious is going on.

ugler i mosen: there is something fishy going on (comes from the Danish expression “ulver i mosen” or “ulver i myra” – not sure)

skatt: treasure, and most importantly, tax.

selges som hakka møkk: Sells very well (“comme des petits pains” – like little breads in French). I have no idea why minced shit is seen to being sold very easily in Norway, probably a long time ago, for agriculture purposes??

å ha svin på skogen: to have pigs in/on the forest means that you have something to hide. It comes (according to the eminent language specialist NHR) from Norway under Danish rule where Danes came to count the pigs of each family and collect the tax. The people would send their pigs in the forest so that they would not have to pay tax for all their pigs. Norwegians were therefore screwing the tax system!! But it was a long time ago so it is now forgiven (I guess).

alle monner drar, sa musa så pissa i havet: something you say when something does not make a difference at all (like when a mouse pisses in the sea)

å stå med skjegget i postkassa: is equivalent in English to the expression “to hold the bag”. This means that you are left in a position where you are blamed for something, or in a way trapped. (I am not entirely sure about the meaning of this one, got different answers from people)

å være høy i hatten: is used for someone who feels he or she is on top of the world or thinks quite highly of him/herself.

Inspired of my discussions with my Norwegian friends and this website Språkrådet. For more on language in this blog, see More proof that Norwegian is a difficult language and How to become fluent in Norwegian (or die trying).

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

21 thoughts on “Confusing things Norwegians say

  1. I won’t say that you do, but you are at least close to mixing the two expressions “høy i hatten” (having high self confidence) and “høy på pæra” (being bumptious). The first expression is actually used the most with a negation, e.g. “ikke særlig høy i hatten”, especially when you are feeling very uncomfortable.

      1. Oui je sais, comme le français n’est pas le mien non plus! Bravo quand même, c’est toujours intéressant de lire votre blog – j’habite en Islande depuis 7 ans, et on a besoin d’un blog pareille ici, car le ‘choque de la culture’ est énorme! 🙂

  2. I know Norwegian can be a difficult language to learn, but French is not so easy either 😉 I have also come to realize that the cultural differences can be rather big, but I think it might be harder to move from France to Norway than the other way around 🙂 I do struggle at times, though, to comprehend the french culture, so feel free to give me some advice! 😉

  3. Your example expressions are written in English, but your explanation has the peculiar expressions written in Norwegian!.
    Might be a little confusing for english-speaking readers.

  4. About “ugler i mosen”. As you wrote, it comes from the old danish expression “ulver i mosen”. When wolves are hiding in the moss, things are not safe for humans.
    For some reason, when translated to Norwegian, the wolves (ulver) was erroneously translated to owls (ugler).

  5. “But it was a long time ago so it is now forgiven (I guess).”

    The back tax or the Danish invasion?

  6. As a Norwegian I’ve never paid much attention to what these expressions really meant. I knew about the ugler/ulver confusion, but when I read this piece I had to google “hakka møkk” to find out 🙂

    It seems that “Comme des petits pains” is more related to the expression “selge som varme hvetebrød” (“sells like hot wheat buns”), while to sell like “hakka møkk” means something that’s easy to sell even if it has noe real value. It comes from agriculture and it has a name, Guano trade. However, Norwegian “guano” was mostly fish entrails and manure, and rarely contained seabird droppings.

  7. Perhaps you would be interested in the Norwegian phrase “En bjørnetjeneste”. It origin is traced back to France and L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins by La Fontaine. The French equivalent is le pavé de l’ours, if I am not mistaken. However, the phrase has been bastardized in recent years, and more young Norwegians believes it means “A great favor”, thus the opposite of it’s original meaning.

  8. Some people, especially North Norwegians, would perhaps argue that “Everything makes a difference said the mouse pissing in the sea” refers to a female vagina, also sometimes referred to as mouse, both in Norwegian and English 🙂

  9. Stå med skjegget i postkassa, that`s a good one. Getting your beard stuck in the mailbox. 🙂 Funny expression.

  10. There`s one expression I`ve always liked, my grandad used it alot. “Å kalle en spade for en spade”. Meaning, to call a shovel a shovel. And that means no bull****, you should say it like it is, honestly, no matter what. No fancy talking, just straight forward to the point.

  11. Regarding the “ugler i mosen”-expression, there is actually more than one “lost in translation”-issue here. As has been correctly observed, “ulver” turned into “ugler”, but even then, how often do wolves hide in moss? The explanation is that the danish word “mose” is equivalent to the norwegian word “myr” (= english “swamp”). So when there are wolves hiding in the swamp, you’d better be careful.

  12. Felt the need to expand on this, mainly because I have british friends struggling in the very same manner to make sense of Norwegian idioms. (I apologize in advance for lengt 😀 )

    1 “Tråkke i salaten”/ “bæsje på leggen” (eng: “step in the sallad” / “poop on the calf” (not the baby-cow-kind, but rather the back of one’s lower leg.), usage: when you or someone else makes a decision that completely backfires, thus rendering you open to sense of shame/ ridicule or generally leaves you with unwanted consequences of a problematic nature.

    I believe “tråkke i salaten” refers to recklessness when traversing a field, resulting in damaged produce/crops of sallad. While the “bæsje på leggen” has identical usage, but rather refers to a failed attempt at defecating “bushman-style” i.e. squatting down in the forest only to soil ones calves (and possibly heel.) and is a variation of the expression “å drite seg ut”. which directly translates to (to shit oneself out.) again…shame and ridicule are key components.

    2.”Svelge kamelen” (eng. “to swallow the camel.) most likely refers to “Matthew chapter 23. verse 23”
    Shares its useage with “bite i det sure eplet” (Bite into the sour apple.) and generally refers to having to suffer discomfort in order to mitigate a situation, achieve a goal or save face in a societal context.

    3. “Når to poteter blir like store” (When two potatoes are equal in size/subtextually also in shape.). is the nordic equivalent of “when pigs learn to fly”. And generally refers to something that’s not likely to happen, used to quantify disbelief or underline the likelyhood of something highly improbable.

    4. “Jeg kjenner lusa på gangen” ( I know the louse by its walk.) Not sure about the origin, but common usage is whenever they spot subtle “tell-tale signs” of a certain type of behaviour or other characteristic that they feel gives them reason to suspect the subject can be linked to a group of similar stigmatized individuals.

    Previous experience and deeper insight with similar individuals is the basis of the suspicion. Like in the movies when the criminal claims “he can smell a cop a mile away”, even though the policeman is undercover, and not wearing a uniform. I.e. the purpose is to “archive” an individual into a stigma, based on subtle indicators.

    Alleged origin: Svend Grundtvigs “Gamle Danske Minder i Folkemunde” 1857.

    There are tons more, but I’ll give it

    “Beard in the mailbox” is covered above I know, I would just like to point out that there are differences as to useage. While many mean it is the norwegian equivalent to getting “caught red-handed”, or “caught with ones pants down.” A very common form of useage is simply to define someone in an undesirable situation, not necessarily pertaining to culpability.

    However, I managed to find an origin-story that allegedly points back to Denmark olden days, and a criminal-case where a post-office employee was accused of stealing from the coffer, and was evidently convicted because strands of his hair/beard was found in the very coffer he denied having opened at all.

    So the origin suggests some culpability as a key-component, but common usage varies without culpability as a prerequisite.

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