• Official language: Icelandic
  • Interesting facts: North Germanic, sounds like Old Norse, very good at inventing new words

Looking an awful lot like Old Norse, Icelandic has changed little in the past thousand years. Linguistic purity is important to Icelanders, who aim to keep their language true to its roots while still functioning in the 21st century, with its bewildering stampede of new ideas in need of description.

So when one of these ideas pops up, Icelanders are adept at creating a new word for it rather than just absorbing or adapting a foreign term. Other countries try to do the same, but the difference with Iceland is that everyday use of these new words is high.

Creating new words

When football was first making waves at the turn of the 20th century, it went by the word “fótbolti”, a direction translation of ‘football’. This wasn’t Icelandic enough, though, and the word knattspyrna was created and quickly adopted. It literally means “ball-kick“, with both parts of the word being sophisticated terms in their own rights.

Fótbolti is still in use, but is seen as the more childish of the two.

Interesting words

Like Scandi-pal Sweden, Iceland is fond of its butter. To butter the ball (smyrja or smyrja boltanum) is when it shaves the post on the way in.

Continuing down the culinary path, when you show the other team what you’re really made of you “take them to the bakery” (taka þá í bakaríið). Presumably, this one works especially well if what you’re really made of is pastry.

A bicycle kick is known as a “bicycle horse kick” (hjólhestaspyrna), which most likely comes from the fact that bicycles were given the name hjólhestar or “horses on wheels” when they first came to Iceland.

Less explicable to this foreigner is strauja, the direct meaning of which is “ironing” (like with shirts) and refers to a particularly strong tackle.

We end on klobbi, which is thoroughly pleasant to look at and to say out loud. It’s the Icelandic word for a nutmeg, and the word is a more friendly version of the word klof, meaning crotch. Consider the direct English equivalent – crotchy – and you can see why we prefer the Icelandic.

Colemanballs

Commentator and former international Bjarni Fel is a national treasure, and his most celebrated outburst came one game when Iceland were pouring forward and eventually won “a corner in a dangerous position” (hornspyrna á stórhættulegum stað). It’s very much reached catchphrase status in Iceland.

Rivals

The holy grail of Icelandic football is to beat former landlords Denmark. This is yet to happen, and indeed the Danes inflicted Icelandic football’s worst moment with a 14-2 defeat in 1967.

Fans in Iceland take comfort in two things: one, the Danes didn’t qualify this time round and two, according to the stereotype they all talk like they have potatoes stuck in their throats. Take that, danske folk.

Nicknames

If you want to make like you know what you’re talking about, refer to Icelandic footballers by their first name.

Not as though you’re pals or anything, that would be weird. What it is, is, Icelanders generally don’t have family names, but instead use a patronymic or matronymic reference. This means your name reflects your father or your mother, but not your entire lineage.

So Gylfi Sigurðsson is known as Gylfi, because the second part of his name refers only to the fact that he is the son of a man whose first name was Sigurður. For women, the suffix is –dóttir rather than –son.

There was some debate over whether to put the first name on back of shirts, but it was decided that this would be altogether too confusing for foreigners.

The patronymic is more commonly featured, but recent years have seen increasing use of the matronymic. Heiðar Helguson, ex of Watford, Bolton and QPR, goes by his mother’s name: Helguson, son of Helga.

Chants

Where it once stayed true to the national stereotype for being a bit reserved, support has become more vociferous in recent years. This is thanks to the efforts of supporters group Tólfan (lit. twelve), who have gone to great lengths to fill the stadium with people and the people with songs.

And what really gets pulses racing at the two (and only two) stands of the national stadium is the back-and-forthing across the pitch of Áfraaaaaam Íslaaaaaand (Go Iceland).

And finally…

Bjarni Fel has a bar named after him in Reykjavík, although it’s unclear whether they serve the stout which goes by the 1967-referencing name 2-14 (“6.5% ABV; drink to forget”).


With thanks to Guðmundur Sæmundsson at the University of Iceland, Ómar Smárason at the Iceland FA, Þórður Atli Þórðarson, Johann Hafthorsson and Stefán Pálsson.