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Ten Swedish words you won't find in English

The Local · 20 Mar 2012, 13:34

Published: 20 Mar 2012 13:34 GMT+01:00

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The only thing a Swede likes more than having a “fika” (which means, essentially, coffee and cake) is talking about the word fika and how you’ll never find it in English.

“So it’s like a coffee break?” you may foolishly ask a Swede.

“No, no, it’s a lot more than just coffee. There are cinnamon buns.”

“Ah, so more like a high tea, perhaps?”

“Tea? Don’t insult me, it’s coffee. And cakes.”

“So coffee and cakes then…”

“Well that’s not one word, is it? Shut up and eat your cake.”

Click here for the top 10 Swedish words you won’t find in English

The fact is, any Swede will proudly defend the word for hours. Perhaps that’s even what they spend their fika breaks doing.

But be that as it may, “fika” is a word we don’t have in English, yet.

If it's not fika, you can bet your bottom krona that talk of untranslatable Swedish words will lead directly to the word “lagom” which means “just right” – (think Goldilocks and her final bowl of porridge).

However, these two words have been done to death in language discussions, and here at The Local we’ve found ten (dare we say it) more useful words that don’t have any English word equivalent, at least not yet…

Story continues below…

So, without further ado, click here for a read through the top ten Swedish words missing from English, starting with verbs, moving through adjectives, and finishing with the nouns.

And be sure to watch this space for The Local's next language-inspired list, where we'll give you our list of off-the-wall Swedish words that we don’t have in English.

Oliver Gee

Follow Oliver on Twitter here

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

14:26 March 20, 2012 by Twiceshy
Either the article is wrong about the word "hinna" or the examples are bad, because in both examples the English word "manage" does the job perfectly...
14:35 March 20, 2012 by KarinLKPG
I can believe that you missed "Lagom". The one word we are truly proud of being alone having in our language. In fact, Sweden IS lagom. Not to much, but not to little - lagom!

It has been said that the word originated from meetings with only one mug of beverage. The mug then went "around the bunch" (in swedish "laget om"=lagom) giving everyone a sip. To make sure that the beverage would suffice to the last person you could not drink too much. But neither did you want to drink to little. You sip from the cup had to be "lagom".
15:29 March 20, 2012 by Shibumi
Hej Karin... looks like you missed the part of the article above that says

"If it's not fika, you can bet your bottom krona that talk of untranslatable Swedish words will lead directly to the word "lagom" which means "just right" - (think Goldilocks and her final bowl of porridge).

However, these two words have been done to death in language discussions, and here at The Local we've found ten (dare we say it) more useful words that don't have any English word equivalent, at least not yet…"
15:49 March 20, 2012 by janswed
Not to mention Faster Moster farbror Morbror.
15:54 March 20, 2012 by animal_politicum
'blunda' is used exactly as the English phrase "to close your eyes". It cannot be used to mean 'cover your eyes'. It actually means 'to close one's eyelids' (if you do not close your eyelids you are not blunding.).

'mysa' does probably literary mean 'to snuggle' but it has come to be used metaphorically to mean 'have a nice and relaxed time'.

'jobbig' does more or less correspond to 'a pain in the ass'.

The only word in the list which is really unique is "vabba", and that's only because you need a certain type of welfare state were you get a tax reduction for being home with a sick child.
16:03 March 20, 2012 by Douglas Garner
Sambo is my favorite Swedish word. Much more descriptive than boyfriend or girlfriend and sounds a lot better than "live-in"!
16:13 March 20, 2012 by janswed
Not to mention ,Generalska,Overstinna,Kapenska,Majorska amd perhaps Doctorinna.
16:30 March 20, 2012 by lilsocks
"fika" is quite simply Elevenses........article writer is not the best ^^

16:38 March 20, 2012 by Åskar
"Fika" means just coffee. Nothing more, though I know there are parts of Sweden where the meaning has grown to become what in England is covered by the word "tea".
17:07 March 20, 2012 by libertarianism
vabba: the period during which non-breeders are forced to pay for breeders' homelife :(
18:49 March 20, 2012 by CharlieStockholm
People talk about "lagom" when it comes to learning Swedish or Swedish culture etc, but I've lived here for 2 years, speak Swedish, etc and no one has used that word to describe anything or any situation ever. I've been in "lagom" situations as well.
19:28 March 20, 2012 by Tanskalainen
Wouldn't "orka" simply be stamina?
22:50 March 20, 2012 by Radhus
@ Tanskalainen, orka is a verb so more like "feel like" or to "have the stamina".

@ Douglas Garner, #6, I also like "särbo", for two people who are together but live apart.

The list definitely has some great words, but most of them can still easily be translated into single words in English depending on the senses you use them for (as many have commented already).

"Jobbig" could easily be translated to "hard" but it depends on the sense. E.g. "I cleaned the house. How jobbigt it was". You can't really say "I had a jobbig day", but you could say "It was jobbigt today" to mean the same thing.

I always use "duktig" to mean "clever" and I don't believe I'm wrong. E.g. "He is a duktig programmer", "You are duktig at what you do", "A duktig child".

As for Gubbe/Gumma, again it depends on the sense. For young kids, there are many names for little boy, like "tiger" and for girl there is "button", "muffin", etc. For old man I would use "wind-bag" and for old woman just "bag" or "old bag". They're words you say about them but not actually to them just like in the Local's Swedish examples. I guess it all depends on which variety of English you speak too.

But I think Swedes are kidding themselves if they think Swedish is the richest language. "Sjukhus" (hospital), "trägårdsmästare" (gardener), "barnvagn" (pram/stroller), "tandläkare" (dentist), Mormor/farmor/morfar/farfar (maternal/paternal grandparents)…there's some "rich"every day compound words for you. Swedish is just elementary compared to other languages. Self-explanatory but not rich.
23:06 March 20, 2012 by planethero
good list! plenty of handy words :)

Morfar and Mormor are särbo etc
23:29 March 20, 2012 by derf
How about "to harrumph" for "att harkla" ? That's how I've entered harkla into my vocabulary flashcards for now anyway :)
05:11 March 21, 2012 by Da Goat
there is a good reason that they are not translatable ...none of those 10 words are useful in english hence they have not made the cut !

a large part of english is derived from nordic languages any how
08:44 March 21, 2012 by Fera
Please don´t tell the story about the word lagom! It is an out right fib made up several hundred years after the Viking era.

The word is realy a form of "lag" (law). And it is used in Norwegian in the same form and has equivalents in Danish, Japanese, and Serbian. (Probably more.) So just stop with the word Lagom allready!!!
10:48 March 21, 2012 by Åskar

This is a comparison between specifically English and Swedish, not between English and other languages in general.

One other useful Scandinavian word that can't be expressed in English is "uppehållsväder".
15:46 March 21, 2012 by Emerentia
I always found that traffic sign in the last picture so weird. It looks like the "gumma" has her hand up the "gubbes" ass for some strange reason.
16:24 March 21, 2012 by cospgsmark
In America we have something similar to "harkla". The vulger term "hawk a loogie" is used when you spit something out you just coughed up. I imagine we borrowed and changed the word a little.
17:41 March 21, 2012 by Åskar
No, cospgsmark. That is not the same thing as "harkla", which simply translates as "to clear one's throat".
17:57 March 21, 2012 by jostein
14:35 March 20, 2012 by KarinLKPG

Not hardly, sweden is one of the least "lagom" countries in the world, straggling from one extreme to the other every few decades. Or how about gooing so far in the free sex direction in the 1970ies to actually suggest legalising pedofilia, whilest today maintaing laws and attitudes that would make the victorians seem tolerant and lax? This is just one example but there are many many many more examples of swedish extremism and general lack of balance and "lagom".
20:27 March 21, 2012 by nixus






16:34 March 22, 2012 by cospgsmark
Askar, you are way too dismissive. I said there is a similarity in terms, not an exact definition. Modern English has many borrowed words where the meanings have evolved in time. I am not saying we borrowed "harkla" for sure. Who can say for certain which same sounding words are the real deal, or just coincidence. This is just an amusing thing to ponder for me.
10:31 March 23, 2012 by si
Of course there are single words in swedish which do not translate directly to english single words in meaning and context. It is after all a different language. I find these kind of comparisions obvious and uninteresting.

Much more interesting I find are the direct translations of swedish words to their meanings in english.

Example: Jordgubbe = Strawberry however a more direct translation would be something like Jordgubbe = Old man of the earth. Now that's cool !
11:55 March 23, 2012 by hogar2010
It is interesting how some phrases are completely missing from English. I'm Finnish and some of the examples mentioned in this list apply to my experiences as well. And I don't mean those words that can be easily translated to English just using more than one letter. But like 'orka' ('jaksaa' in Finnish), you pretty much can't just simply translate it, you have to find some other phrase that fits the context.
19:02 March 23, 2012 by lambrochten
And this is just the beginning. I am sure there are a lot more words that don't translate exactly. Maybe those of us who are native English speakers with Swedish friends or heritage will start adopting some of these words, just like we adopted Uffda, tak, and Ole and Lena jokes. :-)
01:00 March 24, 2012 by BrittInSweden
Fika is "Afternoon Tea"

Tea doesn't have to mean just the drink
11:40 March 24, 2012 by mal808
I can't speak Swedish yet, but there must be many words in English that cannot be translated directly into Swedish too?
15:12 March 25, 2012 by Urabutln
Cool list - but I call foul on "jobbig" - while not as commonly used in English as "jobbig" is in Sweden, the word "trying" is an exact analogue. It works in every single instance you would use "jobbig" in Swedish.

"Man you're so jobbig/trying"

"This math problem is seriously jobbigt/trying"

"Phew what a trying/jobbig week"
18:07 March 25, 2012 by Adam_H
Sorry, but afternoon tea means tea with cake or sandwiches, so it is very close to fika. It is just that you Swedes don't drink much tea.
18:56 March 25, 2012 by BillyB
Vabba = Skiving
12:25 March 26, 2012 by Garry Jones
Expat from UK; 24 years here.

I have worked a translator for Bonniers, Swedish to English.

I do understand the list; some words are simpler in Swedish. Many of us expats have incorporated Swedish words into our English. I often say to other expats "Do you want to meet up for a fika".

However - Fika is "elevenses" even if it is taken at other times of the day. Afternoon tea works as well. But to be honest if I arrange to meet a mate in England for a "coffee" it would not be wrong for either of us to buy a bun or something in addition to the coffee and either of us might drink tea instead. However if I arrange to meet my brother in "Costas" - our local cafe bar in the village - when I go back we just arrange to "meet in Costas". It then goes without saying that we will drink tea or coffee and possible a light snack. Fika in does Sweden does not rule out the possibility that I simply order a single cup of coffee and pass on the snack.

Mormor/Farmor - Well we tend to add the surname which does the job, albeit with two words. I had a Nanny Laidlow and a Nanny Jones. Some families solve it with one word by calling the Maternal Grandmother "Nanny" and the paternal grandmother "Granny". (Granddad & Grandpa for the men).

As for lagom that has been mentioned, we DO have an English word for it, namely - ample.

Gubbe = Chap/Dear/Geezer

Gumma = Chav/Dear/Duckie

Hinna = Find time, reach, have time

Jobbig = annoying, laborious, tough, tiresome

Orka = able/unable (in some cases), can/can't (in others).

Jag orkar inte = I'm unable / I can't do it.

Hur orkar du? = How could you?

Mysa = Cozy up

Blunda = Block/Cover/Shut/Ignore/turn a blind eye

Duktig is an interesting one because all of these words will do but are not interchangeable as you have to know the context of duktig before you can translate it. Good, Efficient, Clever, Capable, Smart, Brave, Powerful, Sound, Useful, Strong, Able.

If unsure of context then I would go with Efficient or Good.
13:33 March 26, 2012 by Åskar

And what does "Uffda" mean? It does not resemble any Scandinavian word that I can think of.

@Garry Jones

The idea was not if you can express the same concept in English, but if you can do it with just one single word.
21:11 March 26, 2012 by Gocra
Swedes can say just "Orka!"

Which probably translates to "How can I possibly endure such a thing?!"
07:18 March 28, 2012 by uunbeliever
This is so stupid...all these words exist in English. Who writes this garbage? Fika is tea...and while we're at it, älg is moose, not elk.
15:59 March 28, 2012 by skylarkpilot
Avergage vocabulary expressed in a day says it all, English 3500 words, Swedish 1500. I know which think is the 'richer' language, if, by richer you mean more in depth or more expressive. I do however, believe Swedish is more efficient.

There my two penn'orth......Lets see the Swedish for that !
17:34 March 30, 2012 by ferdio
Picture says a 1000 words..!

Honestly, that picture is simply a groundbreaking evidence why Men should be left to be Men, and Women be Feminine (No feminist)!!!

Can't those feminist see now what they are doing, and when two elephants fight the grass (In this case poor children will get their innocent lives) crushed...?
12:24 July 9, 2012 by Nellies
Well, this made me laugh, particularly because the words are, well, not wrong though nor correct. "vaba-ing" should be vabbar for instance. ^^,
15:59 January 18, 2013 by Liziwiz
A simple language for simple people. Straight forward - does what is says on the box but like Swedish food, dull, tasteless and without variety. Sorry Swedes but English really is a rich language shaped by influences stretching back more than 2000 years and centuries of immigration and assimilation of non Brits into our culture.
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