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26 unique Swedish words that we dare say are simply untranslatable

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26 unique Swedish words that we dare say are simply untranslatable
This may look like any old cat to you, but in Sweden it's a lens louse. Photo: Anders Wiklund/Scanpix

Our attempt to translate some of our favourite untranslatable Swedish words.


1. Vobba

This word means "Working, even though you've taken a (paid) day off because your child is sick". An increasing problem in Sweden, in fact. If anyone can put one word to this we'd love to hear it. It's actually a play on words, mixing the word jobba (to work) with vabba (to stay home with a sick child – and comes from Vård Av Barn). Only in Sweden, huh?

2. Planka

This word describes another worsening problem, especially in Stockholm. It means to sneak behind the turnstiles onto a train by shuffling through the turnstiles behind someone else. For example: "Haha, Sven, you planked that lady so well that she didn't even notice." 

3. Vaska

This means "to buy two bottles of champagne at a bar, and then to have one poured down the sink to show how wealthy you are". Of course, words like "waste" and "spoilt" and "moronic" also spring to mind, but they don't cover it.

So who does it? Rich kids in Stockholm's fancy Stureplan area are said to be experts at it.

"Pontus, look at those girls, shall we vaska to get their attention?"

"I don't know Stefan, we could always just talk to them..."

"No, let's vaska."

4. Fika

Swedes pride themselves on the word fika. It means to have a cup of tea or coffee, maybe some cake, and to have a good old chat. Some might say it's "Elevenses" or even just "coffee", but if you tell that to a Swede they'll never invite you to one again.

But it's not the holy grail of untranslatable Swedish words... that would be....

5. Lagom

If you haven't tired of the international lagom hype yet, here's your chance. This word, which means "not too little, not too much... but just right" is the be-all and end-all of Swedish unique words. Think Goldilocks and her final bowl of porridge.

Swedes are so proud of this word that it could be the country slogan. You might suggest "optimal", "adequate", or "sufficient" are fair translations, but then you'd have to deal with the wrath of the Swedes (the only reason we added it to this list). And they'll be lagom angry about it, you can bet.



6. Löpsedel

This is "the enlarged front page of the newspaper that hangs outside news agents". Some call them "billboards" but that's not a lagom translation. If you search on Wikipedia for "billboard" you get all sorts of things including the name of an episode of Malcolm in the Middle – but nothing on the newspaper signs. Search for löpsedel and you get a whole essay on them. The point is, if you walk up to an English speaker and say "billboard" they'll be confused, while a Swede simply won't.

7. Festsnusa

This means "to only use moist snuff while at parties". It's kind of like being a casual smoker, but with moist snuff, which is incidentally very popular among Swedes. It's a brilliant verb, but can be made into a noun too festsnusare.

"Can I have one of your snus, Linda? I'm a party snuffer, you know."


8. Panta

To panta something is "to recycle any bottles with the word pant on them". This is a very common habit in Sweden. Many beer and soft drink bottles have the word pant on them, meaning you can score one or two kronor when returning them to the magic machine at the supermarket. Collect enough and you'll save a heap on your shopping. And no, it's not just "Recycle". It's recycling bottles... and not just any old bottles... pant bottles. Only in Sweden.

9. Blåsväder

This is a favourite word of Swedes in the media industry. It literally means "stormy weather" and is used in any kind of context that can mean trouble. It may be one of the most common headline words in Sweden. "The king in stormy weather" etc. Speaking of storm, you're in the calm before the storm now. Scroll down and you'll be in the storm. Warning, the next word is unsuitable for children.


10. Olla

This verb means to dab the end of a penis onto something, a bit like this. And it's something of a popular word here. In fact, a plumber once making an appearance on Sweden's Got Talent raised a smile when he sang about how he likes to "olla" everything in the home of his customers. And this is a family show. The song was called "I've olla-ed everything you own." Untranslatable.

11. Orka

This verb is a tremendously common word in the Swedish language meaning “to have the energy”, and has nothing to do with Orcs.

For example: "Do you orka to watch The Lord of The Rings trilogy this weekend?" 

It can also be used sarcastically. A parent might, for example, ask their teenager to clean their room. The teenager will reply: "Orka!" Meaning, no, they definitely do not orka.


12. Harkla

It’s used to describe that little coughing noise one makes, often before giving a speech or dislodging cinnamon bun pieces from their throat. "Clearing one's throat," one would say in English. 

13. Hinna

This is an enormously common verb in Swedish, meaning “to find the time” or “to be on time”. Eg: Will you hinna to the cinema? We won't hinna catch the train if you don’t turn up the heat on those jävla meatballs.

14. Blunda

To close your eyes, or to turn a blind eye. "My ex-girlfriend walked into the room and I blundade. I don’t know if she saw me, my eyes were closed. Has she gone?"

15. Mysa

We almost have this in English with the word snuggle, but if you’re gonna be mysa-ing in Swedish, you can do it with someone, alone, or even in a café – perhaps “to cosy up” fits the bill. "After my wife left me, I did a lot of solo mysa-ing. It wasn’t the best of times. It wasn’t the worse of times either..."


16. Duktig

Anyone who has ever learned Swedish will have heard this one by encouraging Swedes, who we suspect don’t always mean it. Its meaning is a strange mix of being good at something and being hard-working. Utter one half-formed sentence in Swedish and a Swede will say “How duktig you are!” and then probably switch back to English to remind you that they have been fluent since birth.

17. Jobbig

In terms of common words, you can’t spend a day in Sweden without coming across this word. It can mean troublesome or trying, annoying or difficult, about people, things, events – almost anything. It’s a real all-encompassing word.

For example: "I thought the train system in Sweden was so jobbigt until I cycled to work, and that, my friend, was even jobbigare."

Or even: "My parents are so jobbiga. I really don't orka clean my room."

18. Gubbe/Gumma

Here is a two-for-one package meaning “old man/old lady” and rather endearingly – that is, if you’re saying them in an affectionate voice. In fact, they can be coupled with “lille gubben” to mean “little guy” for a boy, or lilla gumman for a girl. However, be careful, because if you don't know what you're doing or don't get your tone of voice right it can be rather rude to call an actual old man or old lady a gubbe or gumma.

19. Mormor/farmor/morfar/farfar

Speaking of gubbar and gummor. As well as being a tongue twister for the rookie Swedish learner, this combination is a brilliant selection of words we desperately need in English. These are the words for your grandparents – (mothermother, fathermother, motherfather, fatherfather). Incidentally, the word for grandchild is childchild, but let’s take this one step at a time. 

20. Badkruka

Someone who refuses to enter a body of water.

"Get in the lake you badkruka, it's summer!"

"No, the water's just 16C. I don't care what the löpsedel says, that's not a heatwave."

21. Solkatt

You know that glimmer that reflects the sunshine off a wristwatch? That's called a solkatt in Swedish, and has nothing to do with cats that sit in the sun. "I’m blind! That evil woman has put a solkatt in my eyeball!"

22. Mambo

You might have heard of sambo before (which means live-in partner) but did you know that mambo is the word for an adult who lives at home with their mother? It is unclear whether this is against the mother's will or not. "I'm going mambo for a few months, don't try to stop me, Mum."

23. Hoppilandkalle

This means “Kalle, the guy who jumps to dry land to moor a boat”. Swedes like to use names like Kalle in words, for example bollkalle (the child who runs off to get the ball when it's kicked off the field), snuskpelle (a filthy person) or skrytmåns (someone who brags a lot). Or indeed hoppilandkalle, jump-ashore-kalle.

24. Linslus

Someone who always wants to have their face in a photo – literally “lens louse”. 

25. Dygn

This means literally "day and night", or 24 hours. Swedes could say "I was stuck outside for three dygns" if they were unlucky. The movie "6 days, 7 nights" is called "six-and-a-half dygns" in Sweden (OK, not really).

26. Surströmmingspremiär

The first day of the year when it is acceptable to eat rotten herring (surströmming is a foul-smelling and fermented fish considered a delicacy in Sweden).

"Where will you be for the surströmmingpremiär this year?"

"Very far away, my friend."

This is an edited and updated version of previous lists written by Oliver Gee. Last updated in 2024.


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