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Examples of Bunad, a form of traditional clothing used in Norway during celebrations such as constitution day and weddings. Comes in many variants unique to each geographical area of Norway.

Norwegian Words With No English Equivalent

I am a Norwegian married to an American for the last 10 years, over that time you start noticing that sometimes there are words and concepts which really cannot easily be translated. There are often related to particular aspects of the culture as well as the nature and geography that goes with the language.

Many of these words do have literal translations to english, but the words are typically not established concepts in english.

This is a popular word in Norway that is used in a lot of context and which has very positive connotations in Norway. Dugnad roughly means communal work. It is voluntary work done together with other people. It is something that happens in a lot of context. Socialist ideas have been very influential in shaping Norwegian societies since the 1930s. The emphasis in socialism is the communal spirit of doing things together for the common benefit of everyone in the community.

A lot of Norwegians live in what is called a “borettslag,” which is what we call a housing cooperative. Rather than paying a professional to look after common areas, we cut bushes, paint, tidy etc together in a dugnad. Dugnad is also popular with sports clubs, schools and pre-schools. E.g. at my youngest son’s pre-school I helped paint some of the furniture inside in a dugnad.

Roughly translates into the spirit of working together for a better community. By many considered a typical Norwegian thing. The welfare state itself is by many Norwegian considered an enormous dugnad by the whole Norwegian population. It is the whole population working together for the betterment of the whole country.

Literally translates to food pack. To give some background: Norway is and has always been a thinly populated country. People live far apart. The rugged terrain means that people have for a long time lived far away from each other in isolated valleys, in a fjord, a forest glade etc. Life involved being out in nature far away from civilization working e.g. chopping timber in the big Norwegian forest, hunting or shepherding sheep. For that reason people usually had to bring packs of food with them.

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A classic matpakke wrapped in paper. Shows slices of traditional Norwegian cheese “brunost.”

Matpakke is a thing everybody knows about in Norway. Going on hikes in Norway is an integral part of the culture, whether going in the mountains or forests. People would bring Matpakke to these trips, as well as to their work, to school or pre-school.

The French when going on a Sunday walk may bring picnic food. But this may not be compared to matpakke. Picnic food is a basket of nice stuff to enjoy. That is not what is implied with matpakke. Matpakke is very simple food for sustenance. Usually it would be slice of bread with salami, cheese or jam. What people put on this bread I will discuss further under “pålegg.”

It is a very simple arrangement. You typically just wrap these slices of bread in a piece of paper, and stick it in your bag. That is how I eat lunch in school as a child. Norwegian food has been traditionally quite simple and not focused on enjoyment. We still don’t have warm school lunches like the Swedes. You bring your own food. Although in later years you get access to vegetables at school. The whole matpakke concept has also evolved and what kids bring to school today is perhaps close to what Americans would call a lunch box. My children today get a box with various kind of food in it. Like grapes, maybe some olives, pasta etc. People also don’t eat matpakke at work anymore. Personally I get my lunch from a salad bar where I work. Yet the concept of matpakke is something everybody knows. If you are going on a trip, you could ask the question: “do we need to bring matpakke?” and everybody knows what you are implying.

Norwegians eat a lot of sliced bread. We love bread and we have a lot of variety of freshly baked breads in our grocery stores as well as a multitude of different types of flower to bake your own bread.

So for this reason, what goes on top of a piece of sliced bread, has its own word in Norwegian. It is called “pålegg”. It roughly translates to “what is laid on.” From my experience living in the US I would say it is a term that encompasses what Americans would call a spread, like a jam, peanut-butter etc as well as lunch meats like slices of ham as well as slices of cheese. Basically anything that goes on top of your slice of bread is a pålegg.

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Slices of bread with different kinds of “pålegg.”

I think the best way to describe why this is such an important word for us, is because almost any food eaten outside of dinner in Norway has typically been a slice of bread with something on top. So you get somebody on visit, you don’t ask them what food they want to eat. You ask them what “pålegg” they want on their bread.

If you ever visit a Norwegian Mountain hotel and eat breakfast there you will be exposed to a large variety of pålegg and breads. One of my personal favorites is dark whole grain rye bread with spekeskinke (dry-cured ham) and scrambled eggs on top. A slice of salmon instead of the ham is perhaps even more popular.

There are many kinds of pålegg, but lets me just list some which I feel are particular to Norway:

  • Kaviar. Caviar but not exactly the expensive Russian luxury kind. We buy these in metal tubes and it is kind of salty and orange colored. People often like to put it on top of eggs in Norway. It tastes nothing like what people who have eaten fine caviar would be used to. I tried Russian style caviar and totally hated it. This is very popular kids food in Norway.
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Norwegian kaviar from a tube.
  • Leverpostei. Kind of like a cheap version of the french patei. It is made from liver but comes in a can. Everybody has eaten this as kids in Norway. It is rich in rich in iron and hence often encouraged by health officials for kids to eat.
  • Makrell i tomat, this comes as can of mackerel fish in tomato sauce. Yes we actually spread it on top of a slice of bread. It is sort of a staple for kids. Most Norwegians kids would have eaten this in pre-school, school trips etc.
  • Fish pudding. Often comes in the shape of thick sausage. You cut slices of it and put it on your bread. It is made of fish but kind of looks like mozzarella cheese.
  • Spekeskinke dry-cured ham. Not sure how known this is in anglo-saxon countries. I can’t remember seeing it when abroad. In Norway we have whole sections in the grocery store devoted to variations of this.

Literally translated means fixed seating or fixed places. It means when an area where people usually sit and that each person has a place they usually sit at. Say you get into a place and sit down on somebody’s place. They might come over and say: Hey, there are “faste plasser” here! It does not really mean something by law or rule, but rather something by convention. Like people have been coming to a particular place over longer time and started using the same seating arrangement each time.

A word that means the day plus the night, the whole 24 hours. This is a word I really miss in english, because in english one often have to say “,day” about the same thing but that is frequently ambiguous. You don’t know if the person means just the part that the sun is up or also the night part. You could use it to say: I was awake a whole døgn. If you say that you were awake the whole night, it may not be clear whether you slept during the day.

More interesting is perhaps all the compound words “døgn” allows in Norwegian, which are the next ones I’ll explain.

A Døgnflue is a kind of mosquito that just lives for 24 hours. However usually we use the word in fixed expressions to refer to something that is a short fad.

Døgnvill means you don’t know what part of the 24 hour day it is. It is the feeling or state of losing a sense of what part of the day it is. This needs more explaining otherwise it sounds like a really odd word. Norway is very far north which means the length of the day and the night will vary a lot through the year. In northern Norway the sun never sets in the summer. In some parts it is as if it never rises. E.g. in the town of Rjukan, the sun cannot be seen at all through the whole winter. You live in darkness. These conditions can make you døgnvill. In particular people visiting the northern parts of Norway during summer can easily become døgnvill, losing sense of what part of the day it is because the sun is up all night. It is not totally uncommon that you may get invited for dinner at the middle of the night, because people often don’t divide the days up in the normal way during summer months.

The kind of snow that is really good for making snowballs and snowmen. It is a bit wetter than powdery snow, but not as wet as what I would call wet snow.

The word “føre” refers to driving conditions in Norwegian. But it is a more broad term word. Føre is not just the driving conditions of a car, but also for bikes, people hiking, sledding or using skis. “Silkeføre” could be directly translated to silk driving conditions. It refers to the conditions when you go cross country skiing and it is very pleasant and smooth to ski. You skis slide very smoothly in the piste. A Norwegian who have been out skiing and is asked what is was like may reply ecstatic that it was “silkeføre”.

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A perfect day for skiing with “silkeføre.”

There is a Norwegian fairy tale which a lot of people even outside Norway has heard about called “De tre bukkene bruse,” in english translated into “the three billy goats gruff.” In the english version it says: “Once upon a time there were three billy goats, who were to go up to the hillside to make themselves fat.”

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A Norwegian seter in the hillside.

However in the Norwegian original it does not say “hillside,” but “seter.” It is indeed a hillside but that is rather undescriptive. Due to the seasonal variations the grass up in the hillsides cannot be utilized in the winter. The farm will typically be in the bottom of the valley, where the climate is better for a longer part of the year. But to utilize all available resources the farm would send the animals up the hillside to grass there in the summer. Usually there would be some sort of farm in the hillside to be utilized in the summer months.

This is a word that makes a lot of sense for Norway since there is very little flat land. Most of Norway is just full of mountains and consequently hillsides.

Traditional farm building for food storage. These are built on top of four poles to keep the food away from animals.

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The building on poles is a stabbur, specifically made for food storage in rural Norway, before the advent of ice boxes and fridges.

A place that looks after children before school age, Not an entirely unique concept. It encompasses child care before school age. So it would constitute day-care, pre-school and kinder-garden.

“Innmark” is the part of the land dedicated to farming and animals. The areas utilized by humans. “Utmark” is the area outside: forests, lakes etc. It is not quite the same as “Villmark”, which would most closely relate to the English word “Wilderness”.

Just like you have words for various sports like soccer and tennis, “friluftsliv” described activities you do outdoors. It literally translates into “free air life”.”Friluftsliv” encompass hiking, hunting, fishing, mountain climbing or just about anything you do outdoors. Big sports stores in Norway such as XXL will have big sections dedicated to “friluftsliv” selling tents, sleeping bags, fishing rods, knives, rifles, storm kitchen etc, boots, jackets etc.

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Friluftsliv is central to Norwegian culture and a word to know if you live in Norway. Norwegians like being outdoors and are encouraged to be outdoors since childhood. E.g. there are special pre-schools called “friluftsbarnehage,” which are dedicated to friluftsliv, meaning the children are outside the whole day. Doesn’t matter what the weather is like. In Norway there is a saying, “Det finnes ikke, dårlig vær bare dårlig klær,” which directly translate into “there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothes.” This kind of sounds nicer in Norwegian though, as it rimes.

Most pre-schools and middle schools are built adjacent to forrest areas to give children an opportunity to play in nature.

Connected to “Friluftsliv” is “Allemanssretten,” which is the name of a principle enshrined in Norwegian law that all Norwegians have a right to free access to Norwegian nature. It applies to Norwegian “Utmark.” It gives you the right to camp and hike in Norwegian nature.

It is important to emphasize that this is not limited to public land. You cannot buy a large area of forrest i Norway, but a fence around it and write “private property, keep out!” That would be illegal.

You can of course own private property in Utmark in Norway which you can utilize for commercial purposes such has cutting trees etc. However you cannot legally deny anybody access to this area.

What if you have a lake cabin or something in the forrest on private property? Can people just walk through your private property and put up a tent? Yes they can. However the rule in Norway is that you cannot camp so close to somebody’s house or cabin that you are bothering or disturbing their privacy.

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A typical Norwegian beach area. Rich individuals will often try to build close to these areas to turn it into private property going against the principle of “Allemannsretten”

To Norwegians this is a sacred principle that people have strong feelings about. Quite a lot of ink is spilled in various local newspapers about rich people who have built their summer house close to a beach and fenced it off treating it as their own private beach.

This is usually illegal and really pisses off people as it is denying regular people access to shared nature such as beautiful beaches for everybody to enjoy.

An obsession, something you are really into doing.

These are two related words. In later years there has been various books writing about the Danish concept of “Hygge,” but it is a word that exists in all Scandinavian languages. Not entirely sure if “koselig,” exists in Denmark but it is a related term. There is even a related term in the Netherlands called gezellig. All of these mean a pleasant and comfortable ambience. Sort of cozy. The difference I feel is that, I would describe “hyggelig” as the atmosphere when you sit at home eating a nice home made meal together with your close friends or family.

“Koselig” in contrast is more like sitting in the couch eating chocolate and reading a good book with a blanket, maybe with another person. It is perhaps easier to get a feel for the word by considering related words. The first part of the word “kose” means to hug. Stuffed animals are called “kosedyr,” in Norwegian.

Literally the inner corner of the sofa. It is however a concept. It is used in various fixed expressions such as: sitting in the “sofakrok.” This is considered the most pleasant and cozy part of the sofa.

In Norway there is a long tradition for hiking on sunday. “Søndagstur” translates to “Sunday walk,” but in English this is a rather meaningless expression. In Norway Søndagstur is almost the equivalent of going to church on Sunday. It is a holy institution. Even to this day I feel slight guilt over not taking a long walk on sunday. That is sort of what you are supposed to do.

I used to hate these hikes with my parents when I was a kid. We would go through the forrest and through some beautiful cultural landscapes on the island of Jeløya where I grew up. Although I did not quite appreciate that as a child.

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Sunday walks in my childhood would usually end up at this old manner, F15 which today has been converted to an art gallery and cafe.

We would go to an old manner which had been converted to an art gallery. Usually it would show modern art which I hated. However they had some really wonderful pastries there, so that made up for it.

As I got older however they tradition got hardwired. I would continue the tradition taking Sunday walks with my own brother, just the two of us.

Ironically this tradition of walking around in nature was something Norwegians learned from British tourists some 100 years ago. The British have of course long appreciated a stroll. I am reminded of reading about how Charles Darwin would take a long stroll each day to think and reflect.

This basically means increase your food supply through some kind of foraging. It could be picking berries, mushrooms, fishing and hunting. Here understanding Norwegian conditions helps understand the existence of this word. As a low density country with lots of wild nature, going out to pick berries, mush rooms, fish etc has long been a traditional way for Norwegians to increase their food supply over whatever they get from shopping in the store or farming.

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Example of Matauk, picking blueberries in the Norwegian forrest. To the left you see a berry picker that allows you to pick faster than you can do by hand.

It is also frequently a hobby or past time. Families would often go out together to pick say blue berries or mushrooms. Many people would have berry bushes, apple trees etc in their back yards. They would use these berries for making jam or a special Norwegian kind of juice we call “saft”. Saft is usually made from various red or blue berries and put on a bottle. This is quite concentrated so you would usually mix it with water before drinking it.

The tradition for Matauk became a big thing during the German occupation of Norway during WWII. Norway had about 2 million inhabitants and almost 400 000 German soldiers where stationed in Norway consuming 40% of the GDP. Hence foot shortage and rationing became widespread. This popularized “Matauk” as a concept.

People went out picking berries in huge numbers. Planting vegtables, berry bushes, apple trees and potatoes in your back yard became widespread. Farms had record sales of potatoes for planting during WWII. Keeping rabbits and pigs in the backyard became common.

These are slightly related words all being compound words ending with “løve” which means “lion” in Norwegian. Translated literately these words are “city lion”, “party lion” and “restaurant lion”. These words refer to people who enjoy various aspects of urban life. Sometimes the words are used a bit interchangable.

The words could refer to somebody who likes hanging out downtown having drinks in bars, dining at restaurants and maybe party a lot.

The words are slightly derogatory. One way to understand it is that Norwegian culture is not very urban and it has been traditionally been looked down on to live a very urban life.

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The natural habitat of a “city lion.”

A personal story may help to highlight this. My mother who has been a journalist for one of Norway’s major newspapers in Norway was in a sense part of a new trend that began in the 1970s Norway. Young people of the working class who got an education, time and money to do something beyond being a house wife or working at a factory all day. These new urban professionals would hang out at cafe’s and socialize in the city.

My fathers parents where what you could call old-school Norwegians. Despite living in Oslo, Norway’s largest city they would use any spare time to get out of the city. Oslo is surrounded by a large forrest with countless interconnected trails and cabins where people go hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. My grandparents on my fathers side would spend much of their weekend there.

Their “Søndagstur” was hardcore. Something like 5 hours each sunday hiking or getting serious about “Matauk.” I remember spending many hours with my grandparents in the woods picking blueberries.

To them the proper wholesome thing to do in you spare time was to be out in nature. They where a bit shocked when my father began dating my mother, because they thought it sounded very extravagent to spend your spare time enjoying time with friends in a cafe over some wholesome outdoor life in the woods. Of course my mother had spent a year living in Paris as an au pair and experienced the sophisticated urban life of continental Europe.

Norway was pretty much a backwater back then, where people did not have high thoughts about urban life, fashion and cafe’s. Hence the word “byløve” appeared as sort of derogatory word to describe this class of people. They where seen as dandy, flamboyant, extravagant etc. However the word also became used ironic by people who liked spending time in an urban setting so today it isn’t a particularly negative word. You could in a sentence say “yesterday we where byløver,” to refer to the fact that you where hanging out and enjoying yourself in town yesterday.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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