12 Swedish phrases that are well worth knowing
By Danny Robins, writer of The Cold Swedish Winter
Swedish is a wonderful, melodic but often deeply odd language full of strange phrases and words that are seemingly impossible for a human being to pronounce. So, let’s not beat about the bush, or as the Swedes say “gå som katten kring het gröt” (“walk like a cat around hot porridge”), here are a few of my favourite Swedisms…
Let’s start you with an easy one. “Hej”, pronounced “hey”, means “hello”. Simple, right? Except it can also mean “goodbye”. It’s all about the intonation, and obviously if the Swede you are talking to is walking in or out the door.
You’ve probably heard of the Danish word “hygge”, every fashionista’s buzz term last year. Well, this is the Swedish equivalent. It translates as “cosy” – something that’s pretty important in a country where temperatures can drop to minus 35. It’s more than a word though, it’s a state of mind, to do with the Swedes’ desire to turn their houses into super-stylish nests where they can hibernate during the long winter, eating meatballs and watching re-runs of Wallander.
If Swedes do decide to leave the house in winter, it’s probably to “fika”. The most popular four-letter word in Swedish after IKEA and ABBA, “Fika” is both a verb and a noun. You can say “shall we fika?” or “come to mine for a fika.” It means to consume coffee and something sweet, and Swedes seem to do it about five times a day. Most offices will have a rota of who is bringing in the cakes each day. For a true Swedish fika though, you need seven different types of biscuit!
4. Vad fan!
Annoy a Swede – perhaps by bringing only six types of biscuit to a fika, and you might hear them shout this. Swedish swearing is great. It sounds really angry but, when you translate it, it’s all amusingly mild. “Vad fan” is one of their most popular expletives. Bellowed by an irate Scandinavian, it can be terrifying, but actually translates as the rather quaint “what the Devil!”.
5. Tomtar på loftet
Think someone is crazy? They must have “tomtar på loftet”, or “elves in the attic”. Which, to be honest, would probably be enough to drive anyone nuts. They’re a bloody nightmare, elves, right? I much prefer trolls…
6. Sitta med skägget i brevlådan
Ever found yourself “sitting with your beard in the letterbox”? Nope, me neither, but that’s how this Swedish phrase translates. In English, we’d be caught with our trousers round our ankles or our hand in the cookie jar, but no, the Swedes are out there stuffing their facial hair through letterboxes – you’ve got to admire that.
This is a useful one if you find yourself on a night out with Swedes. It’s their word for “cheers”, but also means “bowl”, because that’s what the Vikings drank from back in the day. If you’re planning on using it at a Swedish party though, there’s a very definite ritual to follow. Raise your glass as you say it and look each guest in the eyes, going anti-clockwise round the table. The eye-meeting to check they haven’t poisoned your drink, something which doesn’t happen that much anymore in Sweden, honest…
8. Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder
Complain about the snow or rain in Sweden and you’ll probably hear this. It means “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes” and is usually said by smug Swedes wrapped up in their expensive super-warm arctic-proof coat as you struggle through a blizzard in something skimpy and inappropriate.
Swedish as a language has evolved a lot less over the centuries than English and you can still find words that wouldn’t sound amiss coming out of the mouth of a 9th-century Viking. Like this one… Trying to find your spectacles? Well in Swedish you’re looking for your “glass eyes”. And in the summer, you put on your “solglasögon” or “sun glass eyes".
10. Smaken är som baken, delad
A lovely little expression which means “taste is like your bum, divided.” Can’t argue with that… or can you?
The Swedish word for vegetables translates literally as “green things”, which always makes me laugh. This is a country that existed for hundreds of years pretty exclusively on the classic farmer’s diet of potatoes, meat and cabbage and anything outside of that – such as broccoli or courgettes – can still sometimes be viewed as exotic and new-fangled, to be lumped under the slightly distrustful cover-all term of “green things”. I will always remember the look I received when asking for a butternut squash in the supermarket in my wife’s home town...
Not just a word, but a whole philosophy of life. “Lagom” has no literal translation in English, but it basically means “not too much, not too little” or “just enough”. It’s what Swedes aspire to and what successive Social Democrat governments attempted to build through their impressive welfare state – a life where there is no need to feel envy or pity, where everyone has everything they need and no more than they require – a lagom house, a lagom car, a lagom number of kids and a lagom amount of biscuits for fika.