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.
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.
Is Anna back at work today or is she still vabbing?
My child’s got flu so I need to vab today.
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?”
I’m going to an afterwork on Friday
When are you free for an afterwork?
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.
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 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 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.
You have to work overtime again? How jobbigt!
My brother is visiting this weekend, and he can be a bit jobbig
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”.
Don’t forget to panta when you go to the supermarket
I got 100 kronor in pant today!
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.
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
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’.
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!