From Iceland — Words of Interest: On With the Butter!

Words of Interest: On With the Butter!

Published September 28, 2016

Words of Interest: On With the Butter!
Photo by
Eunsan Huh

“Áfram med smjörid!” is an idiom that literally means “On with the butter!” It’s used to tell someone to quit dilly-dallying and get a move on.

In pastoral times, butter was made by hand in a plunger churn, and it would take somewhere between 6000 and 7000 plunges to transform milk into the soft, supple fat spread we all know and love. You can imagine how many hours and backaches this process would take, and why a slightly pushy “áfram med smjörid!” would have been useful in such a scenario.

Back then, making butter was considered such a laborious task that there are even stories of housewives tying the churner onto the back of a shepherd. After many hours in the field tending to his flock, he would return home with churned butter and save her those 7000 manual plunges.

Despite the backbreaking process, Icelanders had a surplus of this stuff and used it liberally in their day-to-day lives. It was considered a source of strength, especially during winter. The recommended portion was a whopping 1700 grams (3.7lbs) per week per person. It’s been recorded that butter was sometimes used in place of soap, and, in other cases, as lotion for children. Weak lambs were also fed butter as to make them stronger.

Butter’s reputation has been suffering as of late, with the world spurning fat and turning towards a leaner, “healthier” lifestyle. But winter is coming, and there’s nothing more hearty than a bowl of kjötsúpa (meat soup) with a hunk of smjör-laden rúgbrauð (rye bread).


Every Single Word in Icelandic is a pictographic exploration of the Icelandic language. I find an interesting compound word, then deconstruct and illustrate it as icons. The goal is to express how Icelandic can be deadpan literal and unexpectedly poetic at the same time.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!