Norwegian expression of the day: Dugnad

Norway's government has been counting on perhaps the most Norwegian tradition of all to fight the coronavirus.

Norwegian expression of the day: Dugnad
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

What does it mean?

If you tap dugnad into Google Translate, it suggests ‘voluntary work’. While this translation certainly is not incorrect, it does not quite grasp the essence of this – admittedly very Norwegian – concept.

Every year in spring when the sun melts away the last bits of snow, most Norwegians get together to clean up their neighbourhoods.

This is the vårdugnad – ‘spring dugnad’. Bring your rake and meet up on Thursday at 5pm like the note in the hallway of your apartment kindly requested, or risk becoming the person that didn’t join the dugnad. (Trust me, you don’t want to be that person.)

Raking the grass while your neighbour from 5C pick up cigarette buds from the flower beds – this is dugnad

Every person living in Norway has participated on a dugnad sometime in their life. It’s work, but it’s also a great occasion to socialise with your neighbours, which – if you live in Norway – you will know is pretty rare. You and your neighbour in 5C get to bitch about the sour-faced neighbour in 3B who didn’t participate.

Plus it's usually accompanied by kaffe og kaker, coffee and cakes.

Where does it come from?

It’s an old tradition. The term comes from old Norse –  dugnaðr – with means ‘help’ or ‘support’, but it was during the 17th century that it became an organised form of work.

Norway’s encyclopedia Store Norske Leksikon defines dugnad as frivillig, ubetalt arbeid som blir gjort i ein fellesskap – ‘voluntary, unpaid work that is done together’.

This ‘together’ is key. You don't do a dugnad all by yourself, that's why the 'voluntary work' translation doesn't really convey the real meaning of the term.

A dugnad is when a sports team sells loo rolls to collect money for their summer tournament. It's when a choir sets up a cake lottery so that they can go to Italy for a training week. Or a school class trying to raise money for a class trip to Germany.  


Today the term can also be used about a state of mind. Nasjonal dugnadsånd literally means ‘national dugnad-spirit’, which is the attitude the people are supposed to have when we are trying to nationally solve a problem.

Cue coronavirus.

To tackle the spread of the virus, Norway didn't issue a strict lockdown like France, Spain or Italy. They called on a nasjonal dugnad instead.

Korona-dugnad basically means that, for the country to get through the crisis, everyone needs to rake their part of the courtyard (i. e. practice social distancing and respect the new rules).

It's clever, because dugnad is probably the ultimate way of appealing to Norwegian's sense of reason. The big question is: will it be enough?

Some evidence has shown that, since the sun came out, people are respecting the social distancing rules less and less. Teenagers are throwing korona-fester, 'corona parties'. Sun-deprived people are flocking to the forests and mountains to walk in the sun. It's like someone saw that sour-faced 3B was bailing on the courtyard clean-up and decided they'd rather spend their time elsewhere too.

That's the thing about dugnad. It works really well when everyone participates, but if there's one too many unnasluntrere (those avoiding the work), it can ruin it for everyone.

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Norwegian expression of the day: Pølsevev

Norwegians share a national love for sausages - even if they know it's nonsense.

Norwegian expression of the day: Pølsevev
Photo: Jessica Loaiza on Unsplash

Why do I need to know pølsevev?

Because it’s a common expression that, when translated directly, it makes no sense.

What does it mean?

Pølsevev is put together by two words, pølse and vev. Pølse is Norwegian for ‘sausage’ and vev means ‘tissue' (not in the paper towel sense, but the tissue that's in skin).

It allegedly comes from the idea that sausages are made of those leftover pieces of meat that were too poor quality to use for anything else, and the pølse, by looking delicious, is something making out to be something it's not. 

Pølsevev is therefore an old school Norwegian way of saying that something is nonsense or to use harsher invective, 'BS'. 

For noe pølsevev! – What utter nonsense!

Other English equivalents would be 'gibberish', 'baloney', or 'rubbish'.


Sludder og vås – nonsense and nonsense (another common expression)

Snikk-snakk – chit chat

Tull – rubbish

Tøv – nonsense 

So do Norwegians hate sausages?

Not at all! 
You might be familiar with the Danish pølse, those thin, scarlet signatory hot dogs that the Danes love. The Norwegian pølse-craze is lesser known internationally, but it's not less true.
Eating pølse in Norway is an old ritual comparable to eating fish and chips in the UK.
Go to Norway during the May 17th National Independence Day celebrations and you will not be able to miss the many pølseboder (sausage vans) selling pølse i lompe (sausage in a traditional Norwegian wrap) or pølse i brød (regular hot dog) with ketsjup, sennep og sprøstekt løk – ketchup, mustard and fried onions – and, if you're lucky, potato salad (potetsalat).
The pølse is also a mandatory accessory to any ski trip. In winter, the slopes are filled with lycra-clad Norwegians devouring sausages during breaks.
Of course, Norwegian pølse-habits are changing. Even simple park barbecues now feature vegetarpølse and fancy bratwursts that make the basic grill or wiener seem slightly dull in comparison (grillpølse is the one you barbecue and wienerpølse is the one you cook in boiling water. If someone asks you, grill eller wiener? during a dinner party, this is code for what kind of sausage you'd prefer.)

Still, its simplicity has aways been a key feature of the pølse, and it might be a part of the explanation as to why so many Norwegians still are mad about it today.

Convenience stores sell pølse. Petrol stations too. Pølse is a legitimate road-trip snack. It's also one of the ultimate dishes to serve during a nachspiel (after party). It's cheap, easy to cook and extremely delicious (just beware of the ketchup spillers).
The sketch below mocks those who try to turn the pølse into something more complicated than it is, by ordering a string of different variants of the mustard, ketchup, bread and lompe (the wrap, remember).
Sophisticated pølse? Well, that's just pølsevev.