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Five Norwegian sayings that don’t translate well

Whether it's separating the snot from the moustache or telling the closest where it should stand, these Norwegian phrases don't make quite as much sense in English.

Erling Haaland in action for the Norwegian national team.
Erling Haaland, pictured above, is regularly described as "goal horny" in the Norwegian media. Photo by Jorge Guerrero / AFP.

Every language has its own sayings and idioms. Unfortunately, these can often leave you scratching your head a bit if you take them too literally.

Norwegian is, of course, no different in this regard, and there are quite a few sayings that can leave you lost in translation. Here are five picks on sayings that don’t make much sense when translated into English.

READ ALSO: Six essential words you need when speaking to a doctor in Norway

Stå med skjegget i postkassa

Directly translated as “stand with the beard in the letterbox”. This saying has its roots in the 1950s but is still commonly used both casually and at work.

The expression describes when somebody is caught in a pinch or hasn’t achieved quite what they set out to do.

Similar expressions in English that are comparable to skjegget i postkassa are “caught in a jam” or “stuck between a rock and a hard place”.

Fortelle hvor skapet skal stå 

This in English means to “tell the closet where it should stand”. For context, it means telling or showing someone who’s boss, laying down the law, or putting someone back in their place if they act out of line.

The meaning behind this is that by directing the metaphorical furniture around, you are taking control of the situation.

Skille snørr og barter

If you hear someone say they need to separate the “snot from the moustache in Norway”, they aren’t asking for a tissue in overly graphic detail.

Instead, it means to separate important information from the frivolous details when having an argument or discussion, i.e. removing the snot, or useless information, from your pristine moustache or the conversation.

This is obviously best deployed when the conversation is getting off-topic.


One that may have left sports fans learning Norwegian scratching their head. Taken super literally, målkåt means “goal horny”.

The media here will typically refer to superstar Norwegian striker Erling Braut Haaland as målkåt

This doesn’t mean literally that footballers are aroused at the prospect of finding the back of the net (at least we hope). It instead means they are in prime scoring form. A much clearer and more appropriate translation of målkåt would be “goal-hungry”.

Nesten skyter ingen mann av hasten 

Norwegians seem to enjoy conjuring images of the wild west when it comes to their idioms. If something is out of control or isn’t being regulated, then it’s “helt Texas“, or totally Texas, and if you come close to achieving something but still miss out none the less then it’s a case of “Nesten skyter ingen mann av hasten”. 

This translates to: “Almost” doesn’t shoot a man off his horse. For context, it is used to describe situations where it doesn’t matter how close something is, It doesn’t matter because a narrow miss is still a miss.

A similar, and probably as difficult to translate into other languages, the expression would be “close, but no cigar”.

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How to talk about family in Norwegian 

Talking about family in Norwegian can be tricky. Discussing your relatives may require a bit of in-depth knowledge of how they are related to you, so it's time to start brushing up on your family history.

How to talk about family in Norwegian 

Let’s start with grandparents. 

Norway has two different words for “grandmother” and “grandfather”, depending on which side of the family you are talking about. This can be confusing for those whose native language doesn’t come with these distinctions. You will almost feel yourself retracing your family tree in your head as you chat about your grandparents in Norwegian. 

Although most Norwegians refer to their mum and dad as mamma and pappa, some Norwegians will also use mor and far, which are the terms also used in the names for grandparents- and other relatives. 

Grandparents, or besteforeldre in Norwegian, can be called bestemor (grandmother) or bestefar (grandfather). Still, it’s probably more common to hear the slightly shorter but more specific, combination of mor (mother) and far (father) used in four different variations, a unique one for each grandparent.

To understand the four combinations, we’ll take a closer look at mor and far and how they combine to describe your relation to your grandparents.

First off, let’s look at your maternal grandparents. Your mother’s mother, or maternal grandmother would be mormor, and your maternal grandfather would be morfar. If it’s your mother’s side of the family, you’ll use more mor first, and if it’s your father’s, you’ll use far.

Your grandparents on your father’s side would be farmor (grandmotherand farfar (grandfather

So to recap: your mum’s parents are mormor and morfar, and your dad’s parents are farmor and farfar.

It’s also worth noting that there will be local variations in different parts of the country. In Hallingdal, for example, those who speak the regional dialect will use gomo for grandmother and gofa for grandfather. 

This also means that the same grandparent can be called two different names depending on their exact relationship with their grandchild. If a woman has a son and a daughter, for example, her son’s children would refer to her as farmor, but her daughter’s children would call her mormor.

In Norwegian, great-grandparents are rereferred to as oldemor (grandmother’s mother) or oldefar (grandfather’s father).

A great-great-grandparent is a tippoldefar or tippoldemor. Depending on how many generations you need to go back will depend on how many times you’ll need to use “tipp”. 

Luckily, when discussing aunts and uncles, the process is much simpler. For that, you can just use tante (aunt) and onkel (uncle). 

Nieces and nephews are also straightforward. Your niece is your niese, and your nephew is your nevø. It doesn’t matter whether they are from your brother’s or sister’s side. 

Cousins are simple, too, although they do have gender-specific words. A female cousin is a kusine, and a male one is a fetter.

Brothers and sisters, you can refer to as søster (sister) and bror (brother). You can also use lille (little) or stor (big) to describe whether they are older or younger than you. When doing this, it should all be one word—for example, lillesøster (little sister). 

Finally, grandchildren. The general word for “grandchild” in Norwegian is barnebarn (“children’s-child”), which is the word you’re most likely to hear.

And finally, we will briefly touch upon the in-laws. To discuss in-laws, you’ll simply need to add sviger to the relation—for example, svigerforeldre parents-in-law, or svigersøster sister-in-law.