What is spænder ben?
The verb at spænde means to stretch something to its full length, making it tense, perhaps by fixing it to two points (it should not be confused with the noun et spænde, meaning a clip which holds things together).
It can also have the figurative meaning of squeezing as much use or potential out of something as possible, as in han spændte ugens madbudget så effektivt, at han først skulle handle igen ni dage senere (“he stretched that week’s food budget so efficiently that he didn’t need to shop again for nine days”).
Ben is the Danish word for “leg” (and does not change between singular and plural form), so to spænde ben is literally to stretch a leg.
Why do I need to know spænder ben?
A more accurate translation of at spænde ben would be to “stick a leg out”, with the implicit intention of tripping someone up.
The phrase is not just used to describe juvenile practical jokes though, and also has a figurative use meaning to present an obstacle or difficulty in the way of what you or someone else may be trying to achieve.
As such, Denmark has an equivalent phrase for trying to trip someone up, but an object or situation can also “stick a leg out”, something that wouldn’t make sense in the English language usage of the phrase.
You can even spænde ben for yourself by hindering your overall progress through your actions, conjuring up images of contorted limbs as you try to get one of your legs in the way of the rest of your body.
Du spænder kun ben for dig selv, hvis du ikke finder et relevant praktikforløb under din uddannelse.
You’re just holding yourself back if you don’t find a relevant work placement during your studies.
EU regler spænder ben for regeringens ønske om at indføre et forbud mod at sælge cigaretter.
EU rules are providing an obstacle to the government’s plan to introduce a ban on selling cigarettes.