The Untranslatables: #2 Pålegg


How many times have you been stuck looking for a generic way to describe an item that you can put on a piece of bread or in a sandwich, but have been unable to find a simple answer? Nightmare, I know.

‘Spread’ might work sometimes, but what about when you’re talking about a piece of pastrami? That’s not spreadable. So, in that case you could say ‘cold cuts’, but then that really refers to meat products, and perhaps you were meaning cheese, or cucumber, or tomatoes. ‘Sliced edibles’ could fit the bill, but then what if you were talking about flaked salmon? If only there were a one-word solution to encompass all of these things!

Well, in Norwegian, there is: Pålegg.

Pålegg refers to anything and everything that you can put on a slice of bread, or between two slices, to eat.

Literally, the word means ‘in addition to’, and it is interesting to note that in a more formal context (and with the help of a few prefixes), it actually takes on a range of legal meanings.

Although a similar word exists in Swedish to refer to sandwich contents, and the concept is also present in a range of other languages (take German ‘belag’, for instance, or Icelandic ‘àlegg’), linguists will generally be confident in stating that no exact functional equivalent for Pålegg exists in English.

However, technically speaking, they’d be wrong. As pointed out on the ‘Norwegian American’ website, the word ‘opsony’ from the Latin opsonium is the English word you’re looking for.

The catch? This word fell out of common usage in the 1800s. It’s not even included in the OED anymore. For this reason, Pålegg has been allowed to stay on my list of ‘Untranslatables’…unless anyone is keen to get ‘opsony’ retrending in contemporary English? Anyone? No?

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