Norwegian expression of the day: Bjørnetjeneste

Ingri Bergo
Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
Norwegian expression of the day: Bjørnetjeneste
Doing someone a bear favour could hold them back in the long run. Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash / Nicolas Raymond/FlickR.

Giving someone a 'bear favour' in Norway has nothing to do with big brown forest bears or cozy teddies.


Why do I need to know bjørnetjeneste? 

Because the meaning of the expression is slightly counter-intuitive.

What does it mean?

En bjørnetjeneste literally translates to 'a bear favour', which sounds like a way Norway - land of mountains, forests and wild things - could phrase doing someone a 'huge favour'.
It's not. In fact, bjørnetjeneste refers to the opposite of a big favour, it's a favour that is not really a favour at all.
(There is no English equivalent, although 'disservice' is a fair translation.)
How does that work?
To illustrate, say your child struggles with their math homework and you, rather than torturing yourself and your child with three hours of not-so-patiently explaining why Sara and Ahmed's joint weight does not equal that of Johannes', decide to do their homework for them.


Your child is happy, you are happy because it means you get to put said child to bed and watch your favourite Netflix show,. You might even pat yourself on the back saying you did both of you a huge favour.
Wrong. You did your child a bear favour.
What might seem like a favour was actually a disservice to your child, who from now on will not just struggle more than their classmates with maths, they will also know that Mummy/Daddy can be bribed (spoiler alert, that child just became a tad more spoiled).
If a child asked their Norwegian parent to do their maths homework for them, that parent might say:
Nei, det hadde bare vært en bjørnetjeneste, lille venn. -  No, that would just be a disservice, little one.
The word actually comes from a French fable written by Jean de La Fontaine during the 17th century, about a bear that tried to chase a fly from his master's nose with a rock.
The bear ended up crushing his master's head.


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