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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Eight essential Swenglish words the world should adopt right now

Swenglish is the term for English spoken with a heavy Swedish influence, and while it usually refers to Swedes speaking their second language, native English speakers who live in the country might also find that their language becomes Swedified over time.

Eight essential Swenglish words the world should adopt right now
Using occasional words from the local language can be a way of demonstrating integration and appreciation - and sometimes it's just simpler. Photo: Aline Lessner/imagebank.sweden.se

Whether you’ve mastered the Swedish language or can’t yet form a coherent sentence, there’s a high chance that you’ll pick up some Swedish words and even start using them in English conversations.

There are several reasons you might do this after moving to a new country. When it comes to concepts or things that are specifically Swedish, it might seem odd to translate them: for example, internationals might say personnummer rather than ‘personal number’ or Migrationsverket rather than the Swedish Migration Agency, even though these official English translations exist. 

For bilingual internationals, who are more used to hearing technical or political terms in Swedish, it’s easier to sub in Swedish terms like kommun (municipality) or talman (parliamentary speaker) than to remember the correct English term. This can help avoid confusion, particularly in the case of false friends. For example, Swedish högskola would literally be translated as ‘high school’ in English, but refers to tertiary education rather than secondary, so using the Swedish word usually makes more sense.

Sometimes, the Swedes have a handy term for a concept that in English would take several words to describe, so it’s just snappier to swap in the Swedish. Or it might be the case that the English term could be ambiguous, but Sweden has a specific word for the thing you want to refer to.

And for some internationals living in Sweden, using the language is an important way of showing respect for their adopted country and to signify that they are making an effort to integrate, even when speaking English. That could mean saying hej and tack in shops and restaurants, even the rest of the interaction has to be in English, or slipping in the occasional Swedish noun or adjective to show appreciation and understanding of the language and, by extension, the Swedish way of life.

So for a whole range of reasons, Swedish words are likely to start infiltrating your vocabulary, which will be understood perfectly by most fellow English speakers, but might result in blank faces if you use them with friends or family outside Sweden. Here are eight of the top culprits.

Vabbing

We’ll start with a word that’s particularly appropriate for this time of year: vab. Vab is only a relatively recent term in the Swedish language, and takes its name from the acronym for a benefit called vård av barn (care of child) which is paid out to working parents who need to take time off work to care for sick offspring. You might also talk about vabruari, the name given to February due to its reputation as the sickliest month of the year.


Many parents end up vabbing a lot in vabruari. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / SCANPIX NORGE / SCANPIX

You’ll hear vab and its variants used regularly among English speakers, perhaps because so many internationals in Sweden are drawn to the country due to family-friendly policies like vab. Even those without young children of their own will hear and use the words if they work or spend time with any parents. As a sign of just how completely vab has been incorporated into expat English, it’s usually used with English grammar structures, with vabbing used in the present tense instead of Swedish vabbar, and vabbed in the past tense instead of vabbat.

And let’s face it, ‘he’s vabbing’ is much simpler to say than ‘he’s off work to care for his sick child’. Swedish efficiency at work. 

Examples: 

Is Anna back at work today or is she still vabbing?

My child’s got flu so I need to vab today.

Afterwork

This is a peculiar one, because it’s a word that’s been loaned from English to Swedish, had its meaning twisted, and then transferred back into Swenglish.

In English, after-work exists as an adjective, and it’s either written as two separate words or hyphenated, since English speakers don’t use compound words quite as often as Swedes. So you can invite someone to go out for ‘after-work drinks’ or perhaps an ‘after-work gym session’ or you might talk in general about your ‘after-work plans’.

In Swedish, afterwork is a noun referring to meeting up for drinks after work, and almost always implies the option of alcohol. But if you mention it to friends outside Sweden, they may well respond with “an after-work what?”

Examples

I’m going to an afterwork on Friday

When are you free for an afterwork?

Dagens

Sticking to the theme of food and drink, dagens is a term that easily slips into English vocabulary. Dagens is a shortening of dagens lunch, a term that refers to the daily lunch deals available in many restaurants: usually a limited version of the à la carte or evening menu, with significantly cheaper prices and coffee or tea usually included.

Examples

Shall we go out to get a dagens?

The restaurant around the corner does a great dagens


Taking the children out for a dagens. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Sambo

Sambo is a specific concept in Swedish society. Loosely equivalent English terms would be ‘partner’ (although this doesn’t necessarily imply living together and has no attached legal rights) or ‘common-law partner’ (a legal framework in some English-speaking areas which is similar to sambo, but not a term you’d ever use when introducing your partner to someone at a party).

Many English-speakers also like the sound of the word and the fact it lacks the ambiguity of ‘partner’, which can also refer to business partners, for example. And you’ll also hear people use the similar terms särbo (for a long-term partner whom you don’t live with) and even mambo (an adult living with their parents).

Jobbig

Jobbig is a great word, so it’s no surprise that English-speaking expats often use it. You can translate it as ‘tiresome’, or ‘too much effort’ and use it to describe a task or even a person, in which case han/hon är jobbig means something like ‘he/she is a lot of work’. It comes from the word jobb (job/work), and implies that this is a task or job you don’t want to do, because it’s too hard or too boring.

Examples

You have to work overtime again? How jobbigt!

My brother is visiting this weekend, and he can be a bit jobbig

Pant

Sweden has had a deposit scheme for cans and bottles for years, which means you can get a small portion of the original price back if you return it to be recycled. Pant is an old Swedish word which originally meant ‘to pawn’, for example when leaving a valuable item at a pawnshop as security in exchange for money. Now it is most often used to refer to the deposit fee added to recyclable bottles and cans.

Similar schemes exist in many other countries, but not all of them have national schemes, and it’s often easier to use the Swedish term, which also exists as a verb (panta) rather than saying “I’m going to return my bottles and cans to collect my deposit”.

Examples

Don’t forget to panta when you go to the supermarket

I got 100 kronor in pant today!

Mysig

Roughly equivalent to Danish hygge and more evocative than the English word ‘cosy’, mysig can describe an evening with friends, a favourite cafe, or a nice apartment. The good thing about mysig is that it’s always positive, whereas ‘cosy’ in some English contexts can be a veiled criticism: if used to describe an apartment or dinner party in a certain tone, the speaker might be implying that there’s not enough space. But mysig is all about enjoying the atmosphere, company, and activity or lack of one.  

Examples

I had some friends round for dinner last night, it was really mysigt

I like working at that cafe, it’s mysigt


Mysig can mean something a bit different to everyone. Photo: Tomas Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

Fika

Finally, this list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of fika. Despite what Swedes will tell you, it is entirely translatable (ta en fika – going for a coffee (and cake)), but there’s no denying it’s a catchy term. In recent years it has even gained popularity among those who don’t live in Scandinavia thanks to a range of books and merchandise celebrating the phenomenon, as has the adjective/adverb lagom, meaning ‘just right’.

Examples

Can I call you back after fika?

I’m going out for fika on Saturday

Which Swedish words have you incorporated into your own English? Log in or sign up to comment below!

Member comments

  1. In Scottish dialect, our equivalent of an “afterwork” is a “straightfae” (straight fae work, or “straight from work” in English English). The difference is that a straightfae normally lasts for several hours.

  2. Krångligt just sounds so very, well, krångligt! We like to use that word to describe a multitude of things in our mainly English speaking household.

  3. Actually I found the word “sambo” quite jarring when I first got here. Growing up in 70s and 80s UK there was a lot of racism about and that derogatory term was used (among others). I’ve got used to its Swedish meaning now.

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LEARNING SWEDISH

Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Sweden

It's the season when the horrible bugs strike and have us all spluttering into a tissue, so here's the vocab you need to deal with coughs, colds and flu in Sweden.

Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Sweden

It’s not pleasant but as the temperatures fall many people will be falling victim to traditional winter illnesses, from a slight cold to a nasty dose of the flu. So if you are feeling poorly, here’s the Swedish words you need to get help.

En förkylning – a cold. You can also use the adjective if you want to say you feel like you have a cold: jag är förkyld. 

If you have a basic winter cold there are lots of treatments available without prescription in the pharmacy. They include näsdroppar (nose drops) or nässprej (nose spray) if you’ve got a blocked nose, and halstabletter (throat tablets) or halssprej (throat spray) if you’ve got a sore throat. 

Hosta – a cough. If you have one of these you may want some hostmedicin (cough medicine), which you can get from a pharmacy, although Sweden’s 1177 healthcare information website states that it’s just as effective to drink a lot of water. Unlike in English, you don’t use the article when saying you have a cough. Instead, you say jag har hosta (literally: I have cough).

Bear in mind that Swedish pharmacists do extensive medical training so are able to provide consultations and advice on a range of minor illnesses.

If you’re buying cough medicine you will probably be asked if your cough is torr (dry) slemmig (wet or productive cough) allvarlig (severe) or kronisk (long-lasting).

En feber – A fever. If your illness is a little more severe and you are running a temperature this is the word you want. Again, your pharmacist can give you over-the-counter medication for this, and will advise you to consult a doctor if they consider it more severe.

Panodil – this is the most common brand-name for Paracetamol in Sweden and can be bought without prescription from all pharmacies if you need a painkiller or something to help a fever. It’s so ubiquitous that people generally refer to simply ‘Panodil’ rather than paracetamol. 

Influensa – The flu. Flu season affects thousands of people every year in Sweden and if you’re in an at-risk group it’s a good idea to get your flu vaccine (full details of how to access it here).

Vårdcentral – literally, your “health centre”, this is where you go to to speak to a läkare (doctor), the Swedish equivalent to a family doctor or GP, one that covers all types of medicine and doesn’t specialise.

Symtomen – The symptoms. If you visit the doctor they will probably ask your symptoms and these might include svullna halsmandlar (swollen tonsils), hosta (coughing) or jag har svårt att andas (I have difficulty breathing/swallowing). If you want to say that something hurts, you say jag har ont i [insert body part here]”. 

Ett recept– A prescription. The doctor hands these out then you go to the pharmacy to collect the medicine.

One very important question you might be asked is har du något läkemedelsallergi? – Are you allergic to any medications?

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