15 peculiar Icelandic phrases that leave you scratching your head

Icelandic phrases

Most people find it hard to wrap their head around the Icelandic language. The pronunciation pushes you to do all kind of weird tongue exercises you never knew were necessary not to mention all those suspiciously complicated places names (Halló Eyjafjallajökull!) that were probably put on the map just to embarrass you. To make matters even worse words have different meanings depending on context like villtur, which means wild or lost, or á that unfairly has three meanings; owns, river and sheep; and even when they only have one meaning they change depending on the preposition they stand with (halló 16 different ways to say horse: hestur, hest, hesti, hests).

And then we have proverbs, idioms and phrases that are just weird.

1) On with the butter (Áfram með smjörið)

Meaning

Move your butt and keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing.

Usage

No point diddle-daddling lads, on with the butter!

 

2) They splash the Skyr around that own it (Þeir sletta skyrinu sem eiga það)

Meaning

Used in irony about those who think they can allow themselves to do something (that may or may not be outrageous)  because they can afford it.

Usage

John just bought a 50 inch Super Duper Smart TV, they splash the Skyr around that own it!

 

3) To lay your head in water (Að leggja höfuðið í bleyti)

Meaning

To take some time to think about something, maybe to find a solution to a problem or a new way to do things

Usage

We need to come up with better blog posts, lets lay our heads in water and see what we come   up with.

 

4 ) You are completely out driving (Þú ert alveg úti að aka)

Meaning

Used when someone is way off with something or distracted

Usage

John, you put the butter in the washing machine, you are completely out driving!

 

5) I took him to the bakery (Ég tók hann í bakaríið)

Meaning

I kicked his ass or I sure told him off

Usage

John lied to me about the butter, I’ll take him to the bakery!

 

6) I will find you at a beach (Ég mun finna þig í fjöru)

Meaning

I will get back at you, I’ll get my revenge

Usage

John, you have stolen my pen for the last time, I will find you at a beach!

 

7) I come completely from the mountains (Ég kem alveg af fjöllum)

Meaning

I have no idea what you are talking about

Usage

I did not steal that cookie, I come completely from the mountains).

 

8) I will show you the two worlds (Ég skal sýna þér í tvo heimana)

Meaning

Used as a threat, for example threatening physical violence

Usage

If you don’t return the cookie you stole I will show you the two worlds

 

9) Isn’t everything OK at home? (Er ekki allt í lagi heima hjá þér?)

Meaning

By saying this you are suggesting that there’s something wrong with the other person, that they are stupid or that they are missing a few pages for example.

Usage

You drive backwards down Laugavegur? Isn’t everything OK at home?

 

10) He’s on the wrong shelf in life (Hann er á rangri hillu í lífinu)

Meaning

When someone is doing the wrong job or pursuing the wrong dream

Usage

John is on the wrong shelf in life, he should have become a spy instead of a kindergarten teacher.

 

11) That is the raisin at the end of the hot dog (Það er rúsínan í pylsuendanum)

Meaning

Something that comes as a surprise at the end of something, something extra that wasn’t expected. Usually something positive.

Usage

Ryan Gosling taking his top off at the end of the already fantastic film was the raisin in the end of the hot dog.

 

12) He doesn’t walk whole to the forest (Hann gengur ekki heill til skógar)

Meaning

When a person is not well, either physically or mentally.

Usage

John doesn’t walk whole to the forest after he slipped on the butter and broke his leg.

 

13 ) I won’t sell it more expensive than I bought it (Ég sel það ekki dýrara en keypti það)

Meaning

Used when you are passing along gossip to free yourself from blame if the gossip turns out to be false

Usage

I was told John is stalking Kim Kardashian, I won’t sell it more expensive than I bought it.

 

14) No one becomes a bishop without a beating (Enginn verður óbarinn biskup)

Meaning

You have to apply yourself to reach your goals and be ready to meet obstacles

Usage

John, stop whining! No one becomes a bishop without a beating.

 

15) You are such a Latte-drinking wool scarf (Þú ert nú meiri lattelepjandi lopatrefillinn*)

Meaning

A denigrating term for those who live in the center of Reykjavík – apparently all we do is drink lattes and wear wool scarfs.

Usage

Those latte drinking wool scarves think 101 Reykjavík is the center of the earth.

PS. John was not harmed making this post. 

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88 thoughts on “15 peculiar Icelandic phrases that leave you scratching your head”

  1. Funnygrrl says:

    These make so much sense. Like, “he’s out driving.” I’m going to start using that!
    Im also adopting “I took him to the bakery”.
    The only similar expression we have is “I won’t oversell it”. But that refers more to saying something was awesome in your experience but others may not agree. “I don’t want to oversell it but Guardians of the Galaxy was the best movie ever made.”
    We also get out of the wrong side of the bed.

    1. Alex says:

      We have a similar one in sweden. It reads; Han/hon är helt ute och cyklar!
      translating to : He/she is totally out for a bike-ride. It has the same use as the icelandic one.

    2. Kiki says:

      Maybe “take it for what it’s worth” might be similar in English?

  2. Matthew Paluch says:

    This is fantastic!!!

  3. Tammy Jonsson says:

    I’m dying laughing….I will need to start using these!

  4. Erna says:

    And apparently butter is at fault in most of our “mishaps” 🙂

  5. Sophie says:

    Love the 11 !
    In French, there is “the cherry on the cake” (c’est la cerise sur la gâteau), but it’s probably less tasty than the icelandic “rúsínan í pylsuendanum” 🙂

  6. Edda says:

    Spelling mistake:
    15) You are such a Latte-drinking wool scarf (Þú ert nú meiri lappelepjandi lopatrefillinn*)

    lappelepjandi should be lattelepjandi

    1. mm Auður says:

      Well this is obviously not a spelling mistake, rather a typo 🙂 But thank you for pointing it out none the less and it has been fixed.

      1. Edda says:

        I guess I should admit it… sometimes my English sucks….

  7. Soralund says:

    Thanks for sharing those little gems

  8. Trína says:

    Oh you forgot “Ég er í sjőunda himni” translated to I’m in seventh heaven.

    Meaning the same as “I’m on cloud nine” or being extremely happy or thrilled about someting.

    1. Gement says:

      We have “seventh heaven” in English, too, but it’s less common!

      Dictionary sites tell me it is from the Kaballah and Muslim cosmologies. Now I’ve learned two things today!

  9. Damus7 says:

    It lies in the eyes up stairs, what you have completely forgotten.
    AKA
    Það liggur í augum uppi, það sem þið hafið algörlega gleymt.

    1. Sunna says:

      ..no that means “that lies up in the eyes”, simply meaning something is obvios, breyttu setningunni eins og hún væri á nútímaíslensku: ,,það liggur uppi í augunum” þá skilurðu hvað ég á við 😉

  10. Olga Jenný says:

    When I read the “menaning” in phrase 13, It didn’t quite feel right, somehow it didn’t cover it’s meaning, but then again it does in a way, only it’s missing all the shades of grey. 🙂 Im not saying it’s completly wrong, there is something there, but there is that fine line afterall ….. 🙂 On the other hand, it is very difficult to translate something like a phrase couse in time, it takes on it’s own menaning and even it’s own feeling,.

    Here you have it :

    “I won’t sell it more expensive than I bought it (Ég sel það ekki dýrara en keypti það)”

    On my behalf this phrase has not much to do with the aim to free one self from blame, like you suggest (that is at least not the focus point when used), it’s meaning is more casual somehow and points out, that if you don’t have your informations straight and first hand (something that happened to you), then you can’t never fully know the true origin of the story, that is, if it’s true or false.

    Usage
    I was told John is stalking Kim Kardashian, I won’t sell it more expensive than I bought it.

    1. Icelander says:

      You’re quite right, I think the key word that’s missing in the outline of the meaning here would be “reservation”, in the sense of “don’t take my word for it, but…”.

  11. Hjördís Elma says:

    Það eru tvær þýðingar hjá þér sem angra mig. Það er snyrtilegra og hljómar betur að segja “I need to soak my head” heldur en að segja “I need to lay my head in water.” Svo er hægt að finna enskumælandi útgáfu af því að finna sína réttu hillu. Þá myndir þú segja “John has finally found his niche.” En niche þýðir einmitt: A job, activity, etc., that is very suitable for someone.

    Svo er cherry on top það sama og rúsínan í pylsuendanum. Það hefur bara verið þýtt sem rúsína í pylsuenda því það var eitthvað sem Íslendingar þekktu, Kirsuberið hefur verið of framandi á sínum tíma þegar þetta orðatiltæki var þýtt.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Þetta er ekki BA verkefni í þýðingafræði, bara smá til að lífga upp á daginn 🙂

      1. Hjördís Elma says:

        þýðingarfræði eður ei. Það er samt alltaf betra að tala fallegt og gott mál, á hvaða tungumáli sem maður er að tjá sig 😉

        1. Icelander says:

          Hárrétt athugað! Síðan ætti þetta auðvitað að vera þýtt sem “raisin at the end of the sausage”, en ekki hot dog (sem er alveg skelfilega nútíma-amerísk hugsun og algert stílbrot).

        2. Sunna says:

          svo sammála!!

      2. Ösp says:

        Alltaf flott að taka ábendingum samt 🙂 Svona þegar maður vinnur í ferðageiranum og ber þá vissa ábyrgð á því að birta land og þjóð í sinni réttu mynd.

  12. Heather Linnett says:

    So cute. Thank you Audur. I wanted to tell you I am running a group on Facebook which I would like to introduce to you Called ‘Viking Lands Tours and Tourism.’ It is designed to allow smaller operators of Tours and Touring Iceland to advertise, freely with out restrictions. Perhaps you might like to take a look. I would be pleased to welcome you there to promote your walking tours, or these valuable lessons which you do from time to time.

  13. Kris Jackson says:

    There are plenty of other examples. One I’ve always wondered about is “greyið” — literally, “the gray one,” which I think was originally “the gray lamb,” cognate to the English “the poor thing.” Is it really so bad to be a gray lamb?

    1. Ólafur Már says:

      Grey has nothing to do with the color gray. The dictionary actually has an annex to this and says that even though a small group of people have associate it grey it is not its most likely not its origin. It was mostly used about dogs. It was not considered PC to talk nicely about animals like cats and dog in the olden days so we have a bunch of negative (at least not nice) word about them. For example tík, rakki, hundsspott, hundsskinn, garmsskinn, greyskinn, greyskarn, deli, búadeli, garmur are all word about dogs and all describe them negatively. When used about humans it is explained as vesæll maður, that translates as wretched man.

    2. Lilja says:

      Kris,

      I’m not sure of the origin of the term “greyið” but I’m quite positive it has nothing to do with the colour gray.

      The Icelandic word for gray is “grár”, not “grey”, and, as an Icelander, I have never seen any connection between “greyið” and “grár”. I doubt any others have.

    3. Ásdís L says:

      I am pretty sure that the meaning of “greyið” has nothing to do with the color gray or lambs….it has to do with dogs, female dogs. I’ve been told that it literally means: A bitch thats been fucked useless. (talking dogs here). You use this word when you feel sorry for someone and want to indicate empathy. Its what Ive been told so I wont sell it more expensive than I bought it. “Ég sel það ekki dýrar en ég keypti það.”

    4. Rosa says:

      “grey” has nothing to do with color. “Grey” (greyið = the “grey”) was a dog that had no home and got scraps of food from people and was thin and poor looking. Greyið lítur ekki vel út = Poor thing doesn´t look good / greyið þú = poor you

    5. Þórey says:

      I think grey in Icelandic actually just means skin or fur, and “skinnið” is a similarly used word over something slightly pitiful. (Skin was adapted to icelandic as skinn.)

  14. Andrea says:

    Hahah love it! I think “Sitting in the soup” (að sitja í súpunni) is missing there. It means to be in trouble!

    And “There the doors shut down close to my heals” (þarna skall hurð nærri hælum). It means that it was a close one!

    I am sure I will find more ones! Haha.. living in another country than you live in, you stumble on so many things in your own language that makes no sence suddenly!

  15. Líba Ásgeirsdóttir says:

    I loved this – makes you (Icelanders) look at these phraises in a different way. But I think one more should be mentioned, “Þú ert ekki jafn vitlaus og þú lítur út fyrir að vera” – You are not as stupid as you look – meaning you are rather clever

  16. Hanna says:

    Og hvað er eiginlega málið með “að koma einhverjum fyrir kattarnef”? 🙂

    1. Daníel Freyr Jónsson says:

      I heard that Kattarnef (Katnæs) was a cliff in Norway. In very olden times there was a tradition that when people got very old they would throw themselves off cliffs into the sea so as not to be a burden to their families, such cliffs were called Ætternisstapi (The Family Cliff) and apparently Katnæs was one of those. I won’t sell it more expensive than I bought it.

      1. Sunna says:

        Haha!! That’s awesome 🙂

    2. Stelpa says:

      Kattarnef er staður á Íslandi, undir Eyjafjallajökli. Það var gálgaklettur. Að koma einhverjum fyrir kattarnef merkir að kasta einhverjum fram af þessum kletti.

  17. Tobba Alberts says:

    One of my favorites that’s not mentioned is: Þetta er alveg útúr kú. A direct translation being, this is completely out of a cow. Referring to something that does not belong and makes no sense. I don’t know how that one came to be, but it’s so funny and widely used.

    Fyrst þegar strákurinn minn heyrði orðatiltækið “að leggja höfuðið í bleyti” þá varð hann mjög skrítinn svo ég útskýrði þýðingu þess fyrir honum. Stuttu seinna var ég eitthvað hugsi og hann spurði mig hvort ég væri að draga hausinn uppúr polli. Ekkert smá fyndið, hann hafði greinilega skilið merkinguna, en eitthvað “aðeins” ruglast á orðatiltækinu sjálfu 😉

    1. Icelander says:

      Oh, come on! That one has been around in the english language for ages already.

      1. Tobba Alberts says:

        I had no idea, thought that was an Icelandic saying.

        1. Richard Zink says:

          I am hoping that they are just joking with you … I’ve been speaking English ever since my Anglo-Saxon relatives were kicked out of Germany and ended up in the States. Never ever heard that one used here. Ever. Never. We worship cows so I know what I’m talking about.

  18. gretar björn sigurðsson says:

    If you´re interested you could add a few more; “Ber er hver að baki nema sér bróður eigi” Direct transl: Each one´s back is naked (exposed) unless he has a brother. Means: A true friend will stay with you and guard you through each and every peril.

    “Ég stend gjörsamlega á gati.” Direct transl.: I´m utterly standing on a hole. Means: One has no clue what the subject is about.

    “Fögur er hlíðin..ég fer hvergi.” Direct transl.: The hills are beautiful…I´m not going. Means: I will stay with what I cherish and meet my destiny.

    1. TOMS says:

      Ah, yeah, good examples. The third one being from the famous scene of Gunnar Hámundarson´s exile in Njála, and the first is more generic but is in both Njáls saga and Grettis saga. Is the middle one a saga quote too?

  19. Daníel Freyr Jónsson says:

    Concerning nr. 3. It’s actually a translation error from the Danish phrase “at lægge hovedet (hjærnen) i blödt” meaning to lay your head on something soft, i.e. to sleep on it. Somehow the Danish blödt became Icelandic bleyti (to soak).

    1. Kasper says:

      That might be, but if so, the translation error was carried on back to danish. We are saying “at lægge hovedet i blød” ~ to soak your head. 🙂

  20. Bergþór Arnarson says:

    Hahaha for a while there i thought everyones last name is March.

    1. Hrefna says:

      That is the best one.

  21. Mary Magnusson says:

    Takk fyrir! Thank you so much for this. I am married to an Islander for 26 years. I have picked up odd bits of this beautiful ancient language over the years and have many Islensk Fjoldskyldur in my FB newsfeed. I am constantly baffled by idioms though, even with Google Translate, so this is wonderful. I especially appreciate your explanations of cultural customs in speech and conduct. I will never blow my nose in Iceland again–at least not in public.

  22. Kristofer says:

    He does not step in the wisdom!

  23. Tanja Jóns says:

    You forgot BUT NOT WHAT? (En ekki hvað ?) 😀 the other ones are great :’D

  24. Icelander says:

    My only gripe with this list is the inclusion of item number 15. That one is a very _modern_, post-millennia expression (in fact, I had never even heard/seen it!), whereas all the others stem from centuries/decades ago.
    So that last one ‘sticks out like a sore thumb’ (try make that expression work in icelandic!) and should be replaced. And as the other comments on here clearly indicate, there are plenty of decent candidates left to use, so this should be easy enough to fix.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Well this is my post so I think I should be allowed to include what I want 🙂

    2. Eyjólfur Kristopher Kolbeins says:

      To stick out like a sore thumb=ađ stinga í stúf

  25. Ágúsy says:

    He is no wisdom slope!

  26. jim morrissey says:

    I remember reading a book 10 years or so ago – about the time of my first visit to Iceland. I can’t remember the phrase exactly but the point the book was trying to make was that there were a lot of references to fish in Icelandic. I think it was “not worth a fiskur” or something – meaning it was useless.

  27. Norm says:

    You sure you didn’t make up some of these? If I found a raisin in a hot dog, that would not be a nice surprise!

    1. Sunna says:

      which makes it so funny 🙂 We icelanders love saying things that don’t really make sense 😀

      1. Gunnar says:

        That´s onion-correct indeed 😉

  28. Stefán says:

    “Ég finn þig í fjöru” should rather be translated “I will find you at shore” than “at a beach”. They speculate that the idiom comes from when fishermen used to row back to land after a day out on the fishing grounds and they would insult each others catch. The offended party would then tell the other that he will find him back at shore and promptly serve him a lukewarm knuckle sandwich.

    1. Gunnar says:

      I think it´s more to do with the tides. So it could be translated “I´ll find you in the low tide” .
      Fjara= low tide, Flóð= high tide…….but I definitely won’t sell that for more than I bargained for 😉

  29. mm Auður says:

    Thank you to all the Icelanders who think I translated something the wrong way and offered their two cents. Most of the things you mention are simply a matter of personal taste and although I appreciate your input I chose the words in this post for a reason and not because I don’t know any better. To me beach sounds funnier than shore and the same goes for laying vs. soak. I understand that you may disagree with me but that’s OK – that’s what makes this world such a wonderful place: everyone is entitled to their opinion and we don’t all have to agree 🙂

    I hope my translations didn’t cause you to lose any sleep because that was not my intention. I hope you’re having a wonderful day now that we’re finally seeing blue skies and sun (at least here in Reykjavík).

    Hurrah for this beautiful day!

  30. Eirikur says:

    Your are such an asshole (þú ert svo mikið rassgat) is a good one. Means you are sooooo cute.

  31. Nesão says:

    Það vantar kl
    arlega einn málshátt/frasa:

    “Ég skal sýna þér hvar Davíð keypti ölið”

  32. Dóra says:

    My favorite Icelandic phrase is when you see a kid and tell his parent that he is a total asshole meaning that he is very cute.
    Hann er algjört rassgat!

  33. Valerie Laws says:

    Really interesting! As for the ‘head in water’ phrase, we have the same thing in English but it’s quite an old expression, if you are going to have to think hard about something we’d say ‘we’d better put our brains in steep’, steeping meaning to soak, as you might soak dirty washing for a while before washing it!

  34. Tobbi says:

    Number five in Swiss German (but only in Bern) is called “I hanim d Chuttle putzt”. This means “I cleaned him his tripe”. Almost as funny as the icelandic phrase.

    1. Karen says:

      I just remembered an English version of this: “I cleaned his clock.” 🙂

  35. Atlikris says:

    Two good ones that have been used together by an Icelandic football manager in an interview in England a few years ago. Yes we took them to the bakery. They fish that row.
    “Tókum þá í bakaríið” and ” þeir fiska sem róa”.

  36. Annaice123 says:

    What wonderful reading. Have to mention “ekki er jakki frakki to sidur se” i.e .. a jacked is not a frenchman (trenchcoat) though he’s long”. Always loved, though i could never fully interp or unterstand. In icelandic I understand the double meaning, which could be difficult to explaine in english. Interpitation could be… not everything is as seems.

    1. Herdís says:

      eh… old post/comment and all, but: It’s “ekki er jakki frakki nema síður sé”. There are multiple layers to the meaning here: “a jacket is not a (frenchman)/(trenchcoat) (unless it’s long)/(,quite the contrary). The original comment got the “þó / though” part all wrong and botched the meaning.

  37. Tanja Jóns says:

    Are you barbequing in me ? Ertu að grilla í mér ?

  38. Vale says:

    I’m an argentinian married with an Icelander. many times we find ourselves “lost in traslation”. This phrases will save (or not) the marriage. Or at least Ill be able to ask him to move the butt and he cannotl not pretend not to understand!!

    Gracias from Buenos Aires!!

  39. Love your Icelandic sayings. Have you ever heard, “Don’t come the raw prawn on me, mate?” It’s my favorite Aussie saying. Leave a comment on my blog and I’ll spill the beans! (I’m sure you know what that means, but in case you don’t, it will be a double learning experience. ) Iceland is on my travel list, by the way! I enjoyed your blog. Judy. grieflessons.wordpress.com (You will be my first visitor from Iceland, by the way.)

  40. Birgit says:

    Hi guys,

    for my bachelor thesis I’d like to collect icelandic swearwords and their meaning.
    Would you mind helping me?
    Please write the swearwords and the meaning in this table.
    Thank you very much!

    Greets from Austria,
    Birgit

    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1v8AxIm2xCKIsUuUQHG44raf91AhZmfrcUOJa4QcnEVo/edit?usp=sharing

  41. alexandrasif says:

    Also “jeopardizing the pope” means pooping but in the rough trancelation we say “to play chess with the pope”

  42. Slydda says:

    Don´t forget those two gems :

    Að hafa svör á reiðum höndum ( To have answers on angry hands/ ready hands) in the meaning: to know every answer. Example: John had answers on ready hands when I asked him questions.

    And the phrase ; að vera loðinn um lófana ( to be hairy in the palms) in the meaning : to be very very rich.
    Example : John is hairy in the palms because he won the lottery.

  43. Sheri says:

    This is funny. Even when there are threats or revenge, Icelandic people sound nice and in tune with nature. The forest, the mountain, the beach, etc. Ha!

  44. Liv says:

    Great article! Thank you. It’s fun to share these idiomatic expressions with my children who have Icelandic heritage. 🙂

  45. Tom says:

    I took him to the bakery (Ég tók hann í bakaríið)

    This one doesn’t work for me. When I was in Reykjavík I had breakfast every day at Sandholt Bakarí and I can’t think of anything nicer than being taken to the bakery 🙂

  46. Lucy says:

    In Croatian we also have this expression “Isn’t everything OK at home? (Er ekki allt í lagi heima hjá þér?)” with the same meaning.

  47. Chris Walsh says:

    I guess I am ready to become a bishop then! 🙂

  48. kim u says:

    I would like some suggestions for an Icelandic love phrase or saying to put inside a ring for my Icelandic man. His mother was from Iceland. We palm to visit in 2016.

    Thanks for your help.

  49. Georgie says:

    This is so funny, the ‘latte’ has reached Australia, too. People say, e.g. ‘The latte-sippers in Melbourne’ which is supposed to be an insult to young inner-city people. I don’t mind, I love lattes! (and wool scarfes).

  50. Emily says:

    My husband and I love the raisin/hotdog one so much we’re going to start using it. There is a beautifully quirky saying in German which we have also starting using, Jurgen Klopp mentioned it in an interview, it translates as ‘Everything has an end…apart from a sausage… which has two’.

  51. Gudrun Jonsson says:

    Here is one more “hann (hún) er með rakettu í rassinum” “he (she) has a rocket (fireworks) up their ass”. Of someone that is very active/hyper – similar to pants on fire

  52. Ari says:

    Here is one. “To break your brain”. Að brjóta heilann.
    It means to think really hard

  53. Jamie says:

    Why is everybody picking on John?… leave the poor guy alone… (lol)

  54. Elísabet says:

    I’m very fond of, “ég er eins og úfinn hænurass í vindi”, I’m like a fluffy chickens Ass in wind.

  55. Jamie says:

    In England.. if you are completely out driving.. you’d also be considered “as mad as a box of frogs!”
    I don’t proclaim to actually know what a box of frogs look like but if I was to come across one.. I’m guessing it would be mad…… just a hunch.

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