Say what? Finnish idioms and phrases

Now I’ve been away from Finland for quite a while and sometimes it’s obvious when I speak Finnish. But it’s never more obvious when people start using random new phrases and I have a huge question mark on my face.

Like in every language, Finns are keen on taking references from popular culture and making idioms/phrases/whatnot out of them. And then there are the golden oldies, referring to a time and traditions long gone making it hard to deduce what it meant to begin with.

I asked on facebook for friends to help me to find some of the more confusing ones and it seems like I’m not the only one in the dark when it comes to the deep, dark depths of our language. These are some of the ones that left us clueless:

Ei mennyt ihan niinku Strömsössä – Didn’t go quite like in Strömsö = Turned out less than perfect (referring to an arts & crafts show where everything always works out perfect)

Parempi pyy pivossa kuin kymmenen oksalla – Better to have a hazel hen in your hands than ten on the branch (I think the meaning is something along the lines of better to have a little at your grasp than a lot of out reach)

Näytän sulle, mistä kana pissii – Let me show you where a chicken pees from = Let me show you how it’s done

Chicken’s pee is a constant source of inspiration

Täynnä kuin Turusen pyssy – As full as Turunen’s gun  = something is too full (apparently derived from an old legend where the infamous Turunen stuffed his gun with money and was thus unable to shoot with it)

Poronkusema – Reindeer’s piss = a measure of distance, the distance you can ride a reindeer before it needs pee. Apparently it can be up to 7.5km

Happamia sanoi kettu pihlajan marjoista – Fox said the rowan fruits were sour (apparentely from a fable where a fox couldn’t reach the fruits and thus bitterly noted that they were likely to be sour anyway, a delightful lesson in Finnish pessimism)

Johan otti ohraleipä – Well wasn’t that a barley bread = a tricky situation (barley bread being inferior to rye bread, it is really serious if you need to eat bread made of barley)

That said, I might simply lack the linguistic witticism gene in Finnish.

When I attended one of the first German lessons in my swanky high school in Helsinki we had to translate the phrase: “Tavataan steissillä.” I was unable to translate it since I didn’t ever understand what steissi was. It means station of course, as now seems embarrassingly obvious.

The epitomy of this is the comic strip Fingerpori. It plays on words and more often than not, I’m left puzzled and confused as to what was funny about it. It usually takes a few hours to sink in or someone to explain it to me. Nowadays I dare not even ask anymore.

10 thoughts on “Say what? Finnish idioms and phrases

  1. Pingback: Dog bacon and other Hungarian oddities | Land of paprika

  2. I am learning Finnish Language and I am just crazy to know more and more about it, I was searching about Finnish Idioms and landed on your page, and it is really nice post about few difficult Finnish idioms, but really great, thanks, have a good day.

  3. “steissi” is actually the train station in Helsinki….a very popular meeting place for the youth when I was a teenager…( 80’s and 90’s) LOL

  4. The one of the fox is world wide famous since it comes from one the most renowned fables of Aesop, “The Fox and the Grapes”.
    Here the link to the fable on wikipedia which also quotes the proverb http://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kettu_ja_pihlajanmarjat
    I am sorry to disappoint, but it shares nothing with Finnish pessimism. It’s strictly related to Roman and Greek roots, it has a very outstanding Mediterranean mentality.

    The ones about chickens are amazing! I’ve never heard them before, thank you for sharing🙂

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