Slipping, Halka, and How to Handle Ice

“Watch out! The stairs are slippery this morning.” A common refrain you hear on early winter mornings, at least in temperate climes.

Slippery and its sibilant initial consonant bring to mind (my mind, anyway) the smooth, easy (too easy) movement of feet or wheels; the squeak of rubber tires and soles on ice; the shhh-shhh of ice skate blades; the hisssss of a sneaky snake who slithers and slides on their belly. Overall, an appropriate sound for treacherous, untrustworthy conditions. Slippery invites a feeling of discomfort and the instinct to withdraw, avoid; to go on the defensive.

But in Swedish, the refrain is different. “Watch out! The stairs are halkig today.” And suddenly the half-formed images from the mists of my unconscious take an entirely different shape. It’s not the maleficent, ill-willed nature of the surface that hits me first, but the animated arm-waving of someone hailing a cab (which can be compared to the exaggerated gestures of a cartoon character on ice or an oil slick); an enthusiastic friend trying to catch my attention and yelling “halloo!”; the hearty guffaws of a “haw, haw, haw.” Suddenly, a halkig set of stairs doesn’t seem intimidating—merely comical, or at least well-meaning.

Cultural attitudes towards ice are different along similar lines, though I suspect that’s a mere accident of coincidence. In the US, sidewalks are thoroughly shoveled and salted; maybe not so much out of genuine concern for fellow beings as much as the fear of a negligence lawsuit. Whether it concerns physical or fiscal health, ice is most definitely a threat and treated as such. In Sweden, ice is a fact of life: a handful of gravel and some winter shoes with good traction (maybe paired with Nordic walking poles) is the national response to ice. Slips and slides aren’t threats, but as facts of life, mostly harmless and mostly comical.

Swedish, of course, has other near-synonyms for “slip” that also begin with a sneaky sibilant “S.” To smyga is to steal away like a creeping thief or a con artist*; to slinka is to sneak off like a guilty child hoping to avoid punishment. But it’s halkig (and its corresponding verb, att halka) that’s reserved for the trials and tribulations of trying to get anywhere after a winter storm.

Watch out! Those stairs are halkig!


*And can we all stop and appreciate smyga‘s close resemblance to Sméagol, the name of the hobbit who became Gollum? It might be mere coincidence, or it might be the result of Nordic mythology’s influence on The Lord of the Rings. (I should note, however, that Tolkien was much more enamored of Finnish, and to a lesser extent Old Norse, than he was of contemporary Swedish. So the most likely explanation is just pure chance.)

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