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

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

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

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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Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.