Danish expression of the day: At trække nitten

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
Danish expression of the day: At trække nitten

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash and Nicolas Raymond/FlickR

Today's Danish word of the day applies when you get a raw deal.


What is at trække nitten?

Figuratively, the same as the English expression "to draw the short straw", or to be given the most unwanted task or lot, presumably as a result of bad luck.

At trække is the Danish verb meaning "to pull" and can be used in most of the same contexts as the English counterpart, such as trække bukserne op (pull your trousers up) or trække en tand ud (pull out a tooth).

It can also be used in formulations that feel very Danish, like jeg skulle trække cyklen ("I had to walk [literally, 'pull along'] my bicycle") -- a common situation for people dealing with a flat tyre, steep hill or vicious headwind.

Doors leading into public buildings will usually have the the words TRÆK ("PULL") and TRYK ("PUSH") fixed to them (unless they open automatically). I found this confusing at first because the two Danish words resemble each other. A more common word for "push" is skub, but this isn't used on doors -- for some reason, convention prefers tryk, which usually means something closer to "press".

As a result of this, I occasionally find myself giving a hard shove to a Danish door which should be pulled open, and vice versa.


Why do I need to know at trække nitten?

None of the above has much to do with at trække nitten (I apologise for going off-topic). As mentioned, you "draw" something you don't want, in the same way you'd draw a "short straw" in English, and thereby end up in an unwanted situation.

Nitten usually means the number 19, but that is not the case in this expression. Instead, it's the definite form of en nitte, which comes from the Dutch word niet, a noun meaning "nothing".

You can also find nitte in Danish in nittelod, a lottery number that doesn't give you a winning ticket.

Therefore, if you draw the nitte, you get the lot nobody wanted.


Nitten can be pronounced in almost the same way as the English word "kitten", but don't enunciate the "tt". Instead, the two ts should pronounced in a shortened, softened form that makes them sound more like a "d".

The "kk" in trække sounds like a hard "g" (is it does in most Danish words: snakke and bakke to name a couple of others).

In past tense, you would just say trak nitten and in this case trak ("drew") is pronounced as it is written.


Jeg troede jeg skulle slappe af hele aftenen, men jeg trak nitten og skulle tage hele opvasken.

I thought I was going to relax all evening, but drew the short straw and had to do all the washing up.


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