...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

To raise the bar and turn the steak in the pan

a.k.a. Brain acrobatics surrounding the Olympic games

The Swedish word for the week where I'm concerned is beroendeframkallande, which comes from the two words beroende (dependence) and framkalla (to produce, cause or evoke). Together as a compound word, they mean "habit-forming" or "addictive," and that's a word I can really relate to this week. As soon as we got access to a television set in Mats and Margareta's house last Saturday, we were glued to our seats and even ate breakfast and lunch in front of the TV. Even obscure Olympic games such as sailing – which may not be so obscure in Sweden as Swedes are competing – didn't escape us. We watched one Olympic game to the next and all their re-runs from our first hour awake in the morning until our eyelids drooped late at night. It's a wonder that the TV didn't go up in flames, really.

When we got back home to our TV-less apartment, we had to be satisfied with watching SVT's live streaming on the web on a small screen (http://media.svt.se/playos). On Tuesday, we watched poor Stefan Holm's unsuccessful attempt at defending his title as Olympic gold medalist in men's high jump. Had he succeeded, the Swede would have set a record as the first man to win two consecutive Olympic golds in the sport.

Stefan Holm in the only royalty-free picture I could find of him (Eckhard Pecher/Wikipedia).

As a learner of the Swedish language, my ears seem to get attuned to picking up new words and phrases, at least when I'm in full concentration and especially when the words are repeated by the speaker. The case isn't different watching the Olympics, where sportscasters like to hear their own opinions and where they just love to ask several versions of the same question to panting athletes. Several times in Holm's game, I heard the commentators say two common figures of speech, "att höja ribban" and "att vända på steken," and began to wonder how these idioms are translated to English.

The international high jump idiom

The world of sports has given us a whole variety of figures of speech: that something is a whole different ball game (from ball games), that something is effective across the board (from cards), to bark up the wrong tree (hunting), to call the shots (billiards), to get a head start (horse racing), to go overboard (sailing), to throw in the towel (boxing).

Att höja ribban exists in the collection of English idioms as its literal translation, "to raise the bar." The two figures of speech mean the same thing, that is, to set a higher standard. Interestingly, the imagery behind both idioms come from the same sport, which incidentally in this game with Holm, is high jump. When players succeed to jump over a certain height, the horizontal bar is raised, thereby increasing the challenge for all players. So, every successful jump by Holm raises the bar for the opponents – literally and figuratively, both English and Swedish.

Sometimes however, I think the expression "att höja ribban" is also used as the English phrase "to push the envelope," which means, "to extend the current limits of performance." Whereas "raising the bar" calls forth images of high jump, I had no idea before Saturday where the envelope imagery doesn't come from pushing letter envelopes across a desk. Apparently, the envelope being talked about is a "flight envelope," a set of all upper and lower limits within which an airplane can safely fly. By "pushing the envelope," or testing the limits, the test pilots and plane manufacturers discover if it is possible to push some of these limits. Then again, I don't think flying is considered a sport, so I digress.

Enough of sports idioms? Eat some roast.

Later into the game, when Holm was making unsuccessful jumps, the commentators hoped that, as in the last Olympic games, the high jumper would clear his next jumps and turn the tables. "Turning the tables" has as much to do with dinner tables as "pushing the envelope" has to do with correspondence. This idiom too, apparently, comes from sports; or at least competitive games like backgammon and other so-called table-games. I wouldn't have known this if not for the trusty online Phrase Finder, an idiom-etymology guide for the nerds. According to it, the figure of speech comes from the practice of turning the tables during the game and thus playing from where your opponent left off. "To turn the tables" then means that the adversaries have changed positions of power.

But at this point the Swedes got tired of game-and-sports idioms. They got hungry. They called a time out and went to the kitchen. And instead of "turning the tables," they say "att vända på steken," to turn the steak (in the skillet). A stek is also a joint of meat – a roast, like this one. Yes, the Swedes weren't hungry for just any other chow, but it definitely had to be a big hunk of beef. Playing sports does that to you, you know: you get really really hungry. So when it's time for them to change their unlucky circumstances, Swedes think of their lunch. And in Holm's case, he sadly failed to vända på steken, and thus was not able to – forgive this cheezy pun – bring home the bacon for his countrymen.

Makes you wonder if idioms only originate from sports and food, huh?


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