26 untranslatable Swedish words

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

26 untranslatable Swedish words
A Swedish linslus. What's a linslus? Let us explain... Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

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?

Vobba. But what would you say in English? Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

2. Planka

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

A pet dog appears set to planka its owner. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

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.”

To vaska or not to vaska? Better not. Photo: Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT

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….

Photo: Andreas Ivarsson/Flickr

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.

READ ALSO: Eight horrible Swedish words that get on my nerves (looking at you, lagom)

Photo: Susanne Nilsson/Flickr

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.

“This is where to find the sun in July.” Essential information. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

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.”

A festsnusare? Photo: Robert Henriksson/SvD/TT

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.

A pantflaska being pantad in a pantautomat. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

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.

She's in stormy weather, but not really that kind of stormy weather. Photo: Arne Dedert/dpa via AP

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.” Watch it below. It's all in Swedish, but then again, that's the point of this article. 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.

These guys certainly orka. Photo: GabboT – Expo 100/Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Hillary Clinton harkling during a speech in 2008. Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

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.

Photo: Susanne Nilsson/Flickr

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?”

Don't blunda and drive. Photo: Erik Nylander/TT

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…”

“Let's mysa in front of the fireplace, Johan.” Photo: Malin Hoelstad/SvD/SCANPIX

16. Duktig

Anyone who has ever learned Swedish will have heard this one by encouraging Swedes, who I 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.

“Well done,” says Princess Sofia. “You're very duktig.” Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

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.”

“My boss is so jobbig.” Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

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.

Traffic lights are also called green gubbe (walk) or red gubbe (don't walk). Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

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. 

Morfar and mormor with their barnbarn. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

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.”

Look at that badkruka. Photo: Vegard Grøtt/NTB scanpix/TT

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!”

Did someone say cat? Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

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.”

The housing shortage forces a lot of Swedes to become mambos. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

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.

“Kalle, can you be hoppilandkalle, please?” “Okay.” Photo: Mons Brunius/TT

24. Linslus

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

A cat or a lens louse? It's not a solkatt, anyway. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

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).

The midnight sun. Photo:Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

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 Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. The Surströmmings-Premier enjoying the surströmmingspremiär. Photo:Susanne Lindholm/TT

This is an edited and updated version of previous lists written by Oliver Gee and published in our old gallery format on The Local. They can still be found here, here and here.


Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.