Why has Norway's PM Erna Solberg been accused of 'swallowing camels against the direction of their hair'?

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Why has Norway's PM Erna Solberg been accused of 'swallowing camels against the direction of their hair'?
Prime Minister Erna Solberg. File photo: AFP

Why on earth would a Norwegian compare a prime minister to a camel?


Prime Minister Erna Solberg was on Wednesday accused by Labour deputy leader Hadia Tajik of 'svelger kamelene mothårs for å få sitte i regjering': literally, 'swallowing camels against the direction of their hair to stay in government'.


What does it mean? 

Å svelge kameler, directly translated as ‘to swallow camels’, is an old expression dating all the way back to the Bible.

When Jesus accuses a group of scholars of “screening mosquitoes, but swallowing camels” somewhere in the New Testament, he implies that they were obsessing over minor details and flaws, but blindly accepting major sins.

According to the Norwegian language guardians Språkrådet, the referral to the camel was due to the fact that it was widely considered an improper animal at the time - plus the obvious fact that a camel is huge, hairy and both tricky and unpleasant to swallow.

But how do politicians become camels?

Since the Bible was written, the meaning of å svelge kameler has slightly changed. Today it is popularly used in politics to describe doing something you don’t really want to. But you do it. Not necessarily because it's the right or honourable thing to do, but because it needs to be done.

So let’s say you are a British citizen who would like to remain in the EU. Well, a Norwegian would pat you on the back and say that noen ganger i livet må man svelge kameler - 'sometimes in life you have to do things you don't want to'.

Don't confuse it with the English 'suck it up' (Norwegians are way too polite and nice for that). It's really about making a sacrifice or a compromise that doesn't feel good.

It remains to be seen what hairy camels Boris Johnson himself will have to swallow in future negotiations with the EU.

It could be that the British PM will find himself, as another Norwegian expression would put it, sittende med skjegget i postkassa - 'sat with his beard stuck in the mailbox'. 

Norway's own PM, Erna Solberg, has already swallowed a dromedary or two, according to political opponent Tajik.

The Labour deputy leader used the humorous turn of phrase in response to a serious decision made by Solberg's government, to repatriate from Syria a woman linked to the Islamic State group and her two children, one of them reportedly seriously ill, citing humanitarian reasons.

Solberg has been criticized for the decision by a partner in her coalition government. The populist, anti-immigration Progress Party has argued that the risk of allowing a person linked to Isis into Norway outweighs the country's humanitarian duty to help the child, effectively accusing Solberg of not making Norway's security her first priority.

The comments by opposition deputy leader Tajik were designed to make the point that such a major disagreement is untenable between members of the same government.

"This issue shows, first and foremost, that Erna Solberg will truly swallow camels against the direction of the hair to stay in government," Tajik told NRK.

Tajik's "against the direction of the hair" (mothårs) flourish is an addition to the expression which is new to us, but appears to suggest that Solberg is swallowing camels in an even more difficult way than usual in an effort to keep her cabinet intact.

Have you heard it before and do you know more about the context? Let us know.

READ ALSO: Norway repatriates Isis-linked woman and children from Syria



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