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Norwegian expression of the day: Ta en spansk en

Norwegian expression of the day: Ta en spansk en
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
To the Norwegians, behaving like the Spanish means being a little naughty.

What does it mean?

Ta en spansk en means ‘taking a Spanish one’. It’s a common expression that most Norwegians use about solving a complicated problem with a simple solution (so not really solving it), or taking a risk that’s a little rude or crazy (like parking somewhere without being completely sure that you’re allowed to park there).

A similar phrase is ta en frekk en – ‘taking a rude one’, which refers to being a little naughty.

Most Norwegians remain unaware of the original meaning of ta en spansk en, which is very different. According to the former director of the Norwegian language guardian Språkrådet (briefly interviewed here), ta en spansk en originated amongst seamen who used it referring to the act of rubbing the male genitalia against a prostitute’s breast until climax. (It was cheaper than paying for the whole thing, apparently, plus it eliminated the risk of getting diseases.)

Why the misunderstanding?

Good question. It could have something to do with how Norwegians perceive the Spaniards today.

To Norwegians, Spain is the country of sun, sangria and siestas. It’s where lunch is an hourlong affair – at least – accompanied by wine and followed by a nap. Is where you have dinner at 10pm and let kids stay up past midnight. It is, to Norwegians, the ideal holiday. But a lifestyle? Are you kidding?

If you live in Norway, you will know that is a cold country. Before we got filthy oil-rich Norwegians for generations lived under the protestant mantra that you really need to earn any pleasure, because you really had to in order to survive. 

Today, it’s fair to say that you don’t. Still, Norway is a country where lunch lasts 25 minutes, where the sale of alcohol is strictly limited and no one – no exceptions – is allowed to get a beer from the supermarket after hours (8pm on weekdays, 6pm on Saturdays). It’s the country where children are taught mottos like ut på tur aldri sur (‘out on a walk, never in a bad mood’) and the whole nation seemingly spend their Sundays in sports gear trotting briskly all over marka (the vast green areas outside cities like Oslo). 

Norwegians find this Nordic rhythm comforting. Foreigners living in Norway (especially southern Europeans) may find it excruciatingly boring. 

So the next time a Norwegian says they har tatt ei litta spansk en, while smiling as if they did something really naughty – don’t worry. It’s highly unlikely that they rubbed their genitalia against a prostitute or that they did something truly naughty. They could, however, have parked their car where they shouldn’t have.