8 great Icelandic proverbs, sayings and idioms – and their meanings

Some of the most beautiful and poetic proverbs and sayings come from Iceland. These proverbs and idioms are not only a part of Icelandic culture, but they also speak to the nature of life in Iceland.

Here we will share 8 popular Icelandic expressions that you might not understand if you do not know much about this Nordic country.

1. Af góðu upphafi vonast góður endir

Translation: A good beginning makes a good ending.

Meaning: If you set out to do something, make sure you have the proper tools and support. If it is a bad beginning, then there’s no way for it to end well.

2. Ef maður lætur ekki staðar vatn er það fyrir ofan sjávarrann – og við höfum verið í Reykjavík alltaf og sleit af eftir at selja borgina fyrstu stundinni!

Translation: When someone does not let water stand above ground – we’ve been in Reykjavik our whole lives trying to sell the city first thing!

Meaning: This is a common expression used in Iceland. It means that someone is trying to take advantage of an opportunity or deal as soon as it becomes available, so the person has no patience and rushes into things too fast without thinking them through first.

3. Svipur síðast í stað þegar búið er að slá hann meira en einu sinni!

Translation: The shadow last when you have beaten him more than once!

Meaning: This idiom speaks to the importance of persistence during hard times – especially those who are going against something bigger than themselves. Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in even if the odds might seem insurmountable first glance.

4. Ef þú getur ekki fært bátinn upp á klettana, vitið hvað það er um bólgu

Translation: If you can’t row the boat up on to the rocks, then at least know what a whirlpool is like!

Meaning: This idiom means that it’s better to have experience with something before you’re in need of it.

5. Ófreskar eru gjafir sem eykst með tímanum – og boðskaparleysi af samvisku saklausra manna

Translation: Gifts from generous people increase over time – and promises made guiltless men out of fear.

Meaning: This proverb and saying is the Icelandic version of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. It’s usually used when someone got back at someone else in retaliation.

Sól kørir á næturhálsum skuggans okkar eins og rassgat þeirra.

Translation: The sun drives across our brows like the hoof prints of their horses.

Meaning: This idiom describes how we work hard during the day so that we can reap what we sow at night – just as the Sun rises again every morning to start another cycle all over again.

6. Niðurhal er mjög fyrirsjáanlegt í lífinu, og það er mjög fyrirsjáanlegt að niðurhalinn skuli endast

Translation: A descent is very foreseeable in life and that the descent must last.

Meaning: This idiom speaks about how we should be aware of what’s to come – because it will eventually happen no matter your efforts or desire to stop it from happening.

7. Ófært um bergmál!

Translation: Impossible to make peace with stones!

Meaning: You can never convince someone who doesn’t want something for him/herself – ie “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot force them drink

8. Hver sem hefur ástæðu til að kalla sig annaðhvort ljósmyndara eða verkfræðing þarf eftir mér

Translation: Anyone who has reason to call himself either photographer or draftsman needs me after him.

Meaning: This proverb speaks of how everyone is needed in society and that no one person can do everything alone – just like the Sun cannot shine without the moon’s light