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?
An example would be deciding to just do your child's math homework for them, rather than helping them to understand it properly. 
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 they can just get their parent to fix all their problems (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.
It doesn't just mean to do someone a disservice. It can also mean to do someone a favour, with well meaning intentions, and for it to backfire spectacularly. 
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.

There's an equivalent term in Russian (medvezhya usluga) and German (der Bärendienst) and the French expression le pavé de l'ours (the bear's paving stone) refers to the same thing.

Use it like this

Du gjør ham en bjørnetjeneste ved å ikke si det. – You’re doing him a disservice by not telling him.

Du bør ikke le med ham når han er slem. Å støtte ham ville være en bjørnetjeneste. – You shouldn’t laugh with him when he is mean. Supporting him would be a disservice.


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