Ten Norwegian words you need to learn to understand Norway
The land of brown cheese, fjords, midnight sun and people who will voluntarily go outside in -20 degrees. Here are 10 Norwegian words you need to know to understand Norway, Norwegian culture and its people.
Dugnad, the most Norwegian word of all, and indeed Norway’s ‘national word’ has been a point of curiosity for many outsiders and is of fundamental importance to Norwegian way of life.
It means help or support, and refers to communal work, a custom that can be dated back centuries. As Norway from the old days was a farming and fishing community, dugnad was traditionally a way of getting help with bigger tasks such as haymaking, roofing and housebuilding, and was rewarded by a big meal. It is in some ways a community insurance scheme whereby you help others for free, so that they will help you during your time of need.
Today, dugnad means unpaid voluntary work for the benefit of the whole community, and is particularly common in sports teams and schools (so take note if you have children). During the Covid-19 pandemic it was also often used by politicians to get people to stay at home and accept restrictions for the ‘greater good’ of the community, showcasing just how important this term is to Norwegian culture and morale.
If you live in Norway you are guaranteed to have heard of the hyttetur, or ‘cabin trip’ as it translates to. Every weekend and school holiday Norwegians from across the country pack their skis, bags and Kvikk-Lunsj chocolates and drive to their cabins, usually in the mountains, by the sea or near a forest, for relaxation and fresh air.
Certain cabins have no water, which is considered ‘idyllic’, and where guests have to go outside to a little outhouse to use the bathroom, usually identified by a heart on the door. The key term here is hygge, and the more hygge you can create, the better the hyttetur. Therefore rustic architecture, scenic landscapes, wood on the fire, snacks and board games are key. In later years hytte has also come to mean holiday home and has expanded to also include more luxurious cabins with all amenities available and no toilet in the woods. The choice is yours!
If you are not from Norway, you might have noticed that most Norwegians don’t eat a hot lunch, which is common in many other European countries. In Norway people instead bring a nistepakke, also known as matpakke, into work, school or on their skiing trip. In other words a packed sandwich, usually wrapped in paper with the choice of pålegg (toppings) which can consist of meat, brown cheese, white cheese, paté or jam.
Children bring their own matpakke to school, and when Norwegians go hiking, skiing or any other outdoor activity, it is common to bring one too in your backpack alongside a Kvikk-Lunsj chocolate, the ‘hiking chocolate’. It is also linked to Norwegian manners, so remember to say takk for maten (thank you for the food), even if you brought it yourself, as this is equivalent to the English ‘please and thank you’.
The utepils is a national holiday in itself: The day you can have your first beer outside without freezing to death. The treasured utepils directly translates to ‘outdoor lager’.
As soon as temperatures rise above 10 degrees and birds chirp in the trees, Norwegians hurry outside in the sun to enjoy their first beer of the season. After many dark winter months, the utepils is basically like the first ice cream of the year, but for adults, a traditional rite of passage. You know spring is underway when you see queues of Norwegians gathering around pints, often still wrapped in blankets, despite temperatures so cool most people would prefer to still be wearing stockings. But it is sunny, so you must go! Though it continues all year, the first of the year is extra special and one Norwegians treasure. There is no excuse, because ‘come on, it’s sunny’.
An atmosphere of warmth and wellbeing when you feel at peace and able to enjoy simple pleasures and being in the moment can be referred to as kos or hygge. Most have probably already encountered the latter word after it was popularised by a series of books on Danish culture in the mid-2010s, notably The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking.
READ ALSO: 'Hygge' is now an English word
Hygge and kos are also integral to the Norwegian way of life and are manifested in most things: kveldshygge (evening hygge, often watching tv with the family on the weekend with snacks and candy), hyttekos (at the cabin), peiskos (cosying up to the fire) and someone exclaiming “Så utrolig koselig” (basically meaning, “how lovely and cosy”).
When Norwegians enjoy themselves they will say “jeg koser meg”, or “I am having a nice time”. A word that always has a positive connotation. Perhaps it is how Norwegians manage to get through six months of little to no sunshine without losing their minds.
If Norwegians are known for anything it is probably their love for the outdoors. “Norwegians are born with skis on their legs” we say, and multiple phrases in Norwegian stem from their love for nature.
“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” (det finnes ikke dårlige klær, bare dårlig vær) or “outdoors, never angry” (ut på tur aldri sur) are taught to children as soon as they can walk, and weekends are often spent outside doing some sort of outdoor activity or sport, whether that be ice skating, skiing, hiking, running or camping.
All of these things are gathered in the term friluftsliv, directly translated to “outdoor life”. Friluftsliv is a core social, political and cultural value in Norway, and hard to translate without losing some of its value. Therefore friluftsliv is best as described as 'physical activity in open spaces during leisure time to experience diverse environments and foster experiences of nature'. Because nothing is more important to Norwegians than nature and the great outdoors.
The equinox or Winter Solstice in Norway is called Solsnu or vintersolverv, and is perhaps more important here than anywhere else as it marks the day where we finally start moving towards longer and lighter days and begin to depart the cold winter days that have long surrounded us. From the old norse days solsnu was one of the biggest holidays in Norway for this reason, though it was later replaced by Christmas. The vikings used to celebrate it with a big feast and sacrifice, while after Christianity arrived in the 1300s it was manifested in the St. Lucia celebration known from Sweden. A celebration of light and hope for warmer and longer days ahead.
In Norway thousands of people cross the border into Sweden every year to shop cheap alcohol, candy and snus (chewing tobacco), a so-called harrytur. In Norwegian harry is slang for tacky, but we all do it. In fact it financially sustains a number of Swedish border towns including Strömstad, popular among Norwegian shoppers. Perhaps it is due to the high alcohol prices in Norway or tasty Swedish sweets, but you are likely to encounter the harrytur during your time in Norway.
A quirky term that is indeed very Norwegian. It simply means cocky, confident or being a little bit too sure of yourself, and would by some be defined as rather typical Norwegian behaviour. Directly translated it sounds like silly children’s slang as it would mean ‘apple handsome’, but perhaps that’s the charm of the word. Simply put, being eplekjekk is the idea that you are the best, even to the extent of arrogance. After all, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland said in 1992, “It is typical Norwegian to be best”... eplekjekk or confident, up to you to decide!
Many Norwegian men will say that a bunad is the most beautiful thing a woman can wear, and Norwegian culture and art has influenced and been influenced by Norway’s national costume the bunad for centuries.
The national dress exists in many various colours and designs and usually tells a story about where the wearer, or his or her family, is from. In total there are more than 450 different bunad designs in Norway, and approximately 80 percent of Norwegian women own one. The bunad has its roots in 19th century national romanticism, which included an interest for folk costumes not only in Norway, but also in neighbouring countries Denmark and Germany. However, the impact has been more lasting in Norway, where the national costume is still very popular. It is perhaps the aspect of Norwegian cultural heritage that hones the most pride, and the costume often cost thousands of kroner to make as it is all hand-embroidered and decorated with silver. Today it is a celebratory outfit usually used at weddings, baptisms, confirmations and Christmas and not least, the Norwegian National Day on May 17th.