Norwegian words in translation: pålegg

Photo: ProfDEH / Wikimedia Commons Sandwiches with butter and pålegg of cheese and sliced cucumber on top.

Photo: ProfDEH / Wikimedia Commons
Sandwiches with butter and pålegg of cheese and sliced cucumber on top.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Pålegg is a versatile word in Norwegian. Literally it translates to “in addition to.” Its concise administrative and legal usages have exact equivalents in English, including decrees and injunctions, wage and tax increases, and monetary impositions and duties. There are so many such usages that they are distinguished from each other by prefixes, such as lønnspålegg that translates to salary or wage increase. But in everyday language it mostly is used alone to designate edibles on top of open-faced sandwiches. The translation of the word in that usage is another matter.

Even Norwegian linguists will assure you that the everyday meaning of pålegg in the sense of “edibles on top of” open-faced sandwiches is uniquely Norwegian, because it is commonly believed to have no direct equivalent in English. Accordingly, bilingual dictionaries list descriptive translations into English, such as spreads, cold cuts, and sliced edibles.

Yet that bit of received wisdom is wrong. There is an exact equivalent of the edibles usage of pålegg in English, albeit an obscure one: “opsony,” from the Latin opsonium, meaning provisions or other edibles consumed with bread. The word first appeared in print in English in Richard Tomlinson’s translation of Jean de Renou’s Dispensatorium medicum (“Medical dispensatory”), published in London by George Strawbridge in 1657. It once was a commonplace word, but fell into disuse in the late 19th century. Yet it remains an entry in the current (2013) electronic edition of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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