Analysis: If it's lashing rain, a Dane won't say 'it's raining cats and dogs', but that 'it's raining cobbler's apprentices'

So to speak, to coin a phrase, if you know what I mean.

In Denmark, if someone is drunk they might say he's "vissen" (withered) and instead of being "under the table" he’ll be "i hegnet" (in the fence), neither of which are comfortable. If it’s lashing rain, a Dane wouldn’t say that it’s "raining cats and dogs" but that "it’s raining cobbler’s apprentices," a phrase with its roots in a gruesome 18th century Copenhagen murder case.

Idioms are by definition phrases that are seen more or less as fixed units, the meaning of which can’t be guessed from the individual words. The figurative meaning more often isn’t the same as the literal one, but is derived from the way we use it. When someone tells you to break a leg, for example, they don’t really mean it.

An idiom is therefore more than the sum of its parts. "There’s some kind of metaphorical magic attached to it," says expert in idioms Henrik Gottlieb, Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Copenhagen. "Very often these expressions are either funny to begin with or they say a lot about the culture that they represent," he explains. Idiomatic expressions have their root in and derive their meaning from different time periods, local customs, culture, subcultures, age groups and common experiences, and we’re always coining new ones, he adds.

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For example, "at sparke noget til hjørne" (to kick something to the corner), from sport, means not just to delay a decision, often in a political context, but also to hope that it will be forgotten or overshadowed. While "den er ikke feset ind på lystavlen' (it hasn't entered the display) has its root in modern technology and has been in use since around 1980 to describe when someone hasn’t understood, remembered or registered something.

We do share some idioms across countries and cultures, often those that come from the English language (anglicisms), or those which have a common root, like the bible. Both "intet nyt under solen" (nothing new under the sun) and "at kaste perler for svinene" (to cast pearls before swine) come from the bible. And some idioms stick around even when they've lost all meaning. "Hun stikker ikke op for bollemælk" (she doesn’t stick up for milk dumplings), for example, "is completely and utterly impossible to understand, including for young Danish people," says Gottlieb.

"Originally, it came from the idea of someone who wouldn’t work for a farmer if all they got in return was a milky soup with dumplings made of flour -- It started out being a humorous phrase which people understood because they understood agrarian life -- then the verb "to stick up" disappeared and so did the noun "milk dumplings". But we kept the phrase for another couple of hundred years."

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Here are 14 Danish idioms and how to use them

Det blæser en halv pelikan -- "it's blowing half a pelican"

If it's blowing half a pelican this means it’s very windy; too windy to be termed "great drying" weather. Use it the next time there’s a wind warning and the wheelie bin is flying away.

Der er ingen ko på isen -- "there's no cow on the ice"

If there's no cow on the ice there’s nothing to worry about. Let’s face it, if your cow was on the ice, it would probably fall through and that would actually be something to worry about. It's important to note you can’t reverse it and say "there's a cow on the ice" to mean something is wrong.

Man kan ikke både blæse og have mel i munden -- "you can't blow and have flour in your mouth at the same time"

This exists in English as "you can’t have your cake and eat it too" and means you’ve got to choose.

At have en lille fjer på -- "to have a little feather on"

Unlike to have a feather in your cap, if you've got a little feather on (see also; at have en pind i øret — "to have a stick in your ear") it doesn’t mean you've achieved something to be proud of, it means you're a bit tipsy.

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Der er ugler i mosen -- "there are owls in the bog"

Owls in the bog means something suspicious is happening. Speaking of bogs, the Danes also have a saying for when there’s so much fog you can’t see your hand in front of you; "mosekonen brygger" or "the bog woman is brewing". According to folklore, the bog woman would brew beer at the bottom of the bog, which is what was said to have caused the fog that lies over the bog in the evening after a warm day.

Lokummet brænder -- "the toilet is burning"

If someone tells you the toilet is burning it means they’ve run into major problems. A bit like you’re in hot water or sh**’s hit the fan.

At skyde papegøjen -- "to shoot the parrot"

It means you're lucky. So if someone wins big at the races, they’ve shot the parrot.

Så er den ged barberet -- "now that goat has been shaved"

The next time you successfully get through a task on your to-do list, make sure you say "now that goat has been shaved!" meaning you’ve accomplished it or solved the problem.

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Tak for kaffe -- "thanks for coffee"

No, this isn't a polite reply, it’s an expression of surprise. The next time someone shares a bit of gossip with you that you didn’t see coming, you can use this.

At sluge en kamel -- "to swallow the camel"

This would be impossible, which is why it means to accept or go along with something that actually goes against your wishes, ideals or feelings etc. It’s particularly useful for situations where you have to grin and bear it.

At stå op før fanden får sko på -- "get up before the devil puts on his shoes"

Being up incredibly early, means you're up before the devil has had a chance to cause any mischief. When does the devil put his shoes on? No one knows.

Spis lige brød til -- "have some bread with that"

If you tell someone to "have some bread with that" you’re telling them to take a breath, calm down and think.

Hold da helt ferie -- "take a whole holiday"

This one is a bit like "thanks for coffee". Use it instead of "no way!"

Jeg føler mig som blommen i et æg -- "I feel like the yolk in an egg"

A bit like being in your element. You feel at home, comfortable, cosy, just right.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ