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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

The history behind Sweden’s town and city names

The Local delves into the history behind the names of ten cities and towns across the country.

The history behind Sweden's town and city names
What's with all the köpings? Photo: Grommik/Depositphotos

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As you travel around Sweden, you’ll notice different trends in the place names you see. The north of the country is home to many coastal towns ending in ‘å’, as well as names clearly Sami or Finnish in origin with vowel combinations and double ‘k’s rarely seen in Swedish. And what’s with all the köpings?

There are also several place names in Sweden that might cause puzzlement to the uninitiated. Some residents of Snopptorp have complained about the bad jokes they are the subject of, living in a place whose name means ‘penis croft’. But the name actually comes from Erik af Snoppenström, a prominent figure in Swedish history who worked with the horses of kings Karl XI and Karl XII and who had stables in the area that’s now called Snopptorp.

Here’s a look at what the names of Sweden’s towns and cities can tell us about the country and its history.

Stockholm

The history of the Swedish capital’s name is a question that has never truly been settled. We know that the holm in Stockholm means islet, which makes a lot of sense since the capital today is made up of 14 islands. Originally, it probably referred specifically to Stadsholmen, the island where the city was founded (and where most of the current Gamla Stan or old town district is found).

As for the ‘Stock’, this is believed to come from the older word Stokker, meaning ‘log’.

It’s possible that Stockholmers used upright logs to mark important spots such as markets, or that they were used to block shipping routes in order to collect tolls or prevent unwanted visitors from entering, as a form of defence.


Stockholm. Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

Gothenburg

This western city is the only one in Sweden with an official English translation (the ö sound and soft ‘g’ at the end of Göteborg can be tough for Anglophones), and in fact the English and German name Gothenburg has been around for centuries, noted even in very early city documents. But let’s consider the history of its original Swedish name.

The first half of the word comes from the Göta älv or Göta River which flows through the city to join the sea. The region which includes Gothenburg is known as Götaland because this was believed to be the homeland of the Gothic people, a northern Germanic population 

And the second half, borg, means ‘castle’ or ‘stronghold’; you’ll see it in plenty of other city names too, such as Helsingborg further south. Before the 19th century, Gothenburg was a walled city, heavily fortified due to its strategic port position, hence its name meaning ‘stronghold of the Gothic people’. 

This city has also had various nicknames over the years, including Nya Amsterdam because Dutch planners were hired to build and design the city, which was marshy like many areas of the Netherlands. And it’s also been called Lilla London (Little London) in honour of the many Brits who moved there during the city’s industrial boom.

READ ALSO: Five great day trips from Gothenburg


Gothenburg. Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/imagebank.sweden.se

Malmö

Lots of location names in Sweden end in ö, which means ‘island’, and that’s not surprising given the huge number of islands the country is made up of. But Malmö is an exception to the rule.

Malm has several meanings in Swedish, and in modern Swedish usually means ‘ore’, but an older meaning is ‘sand’ or ‘gravel’ (it’s linked to the verb mala or ‘to grind’), and this is where Malmö comes from. The city was called Malmöghae from the early 12th century, which literally meant ‘piles of sand/gravel’ – the second half of the word came from högar (piles/mounds) rather than ö, but over the years was shortened to its current name.

In fact, there was originally a small town called Övre Malmö (Upper Malmö), after which a neighbouring area, Nedre Malmö (Lower Malmö) was named. The latter became the city we now know as Malmö.

What you might not have realized is that there are multiple places across Sweden also called Malmö, and their names have the same history (you’ll also find several other Stockholms and Göteborgs). Meanwhile, malm pops up in many place names, usually referring to areas outside the main city centre, for example the Norrmalm, Östermalm and Södermalm districts of Stockholm.

READ ALSO:


Malmö. Photo: Justin Brown/imagebank.sweden.se

Karlstad

This is a fairly easy name for anyone with basic Swedish skills to decipher. Stad means ‘town’ or ‘city’ in Swedish, and has done for many years, while Karl is the name of many Swedish kings, often translated as Charles in English.

Karlstad has been an important city since long before it had this name; since the Viking age, in fact. For a long time, it was called Tingvalla (ting referred to justice and administration) and a central neighbourhood of Karlstad is still known as Tingvallastaden.

In 1584, the site was officially granted city status, and that’s when the word stad was incorporated into its name. Karlstad was named after King Karl XI, who at the time had not ascended to the throne and was a duke. The same Karl gave his name to Karlskrona, but Karlshamn in Blekinge got its name earlier, from King Karl X.


Karlstad. Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/imagebank.sweden.se

Umeå

Umeå is one of several northern destinations that end in the Swedish letter å, meaning ‘creek’ or ‘stream’ – did you know this word is related to the French eau, meaning water? So this is a simple etymology to deduce. The Ume River (Ume älv), one of the most important in northern Sweden, passes right by Umeå, so the name of the city literally means Ume stream.

Early documents referring to the city call it Huum, Vma, and Uma, but the first could be a misspelling. The river itself likely got its name from a Norse word meaning ‘roaring’, in reference to the rapids, although others have argued the name could derive from the figure Ymir in Norse mythology.

READ ALSO: Umeå loses fight to use its Sami name on signs


Umeå. Photo: Jörgen Wiklund/imagebank.sweden.se

Visby

A lot of Swedish towns end in the word by, which today means ‘village’ but was earlier used to refer to larger towns, and Visby on the island of Gotland is one example.

The other part of its name comes from an Old Norse word, vi, which meant ‘place of sacrifices’ or ‘holy place’. In some early writings, the village was referred to simply as Vi or Wi.

The town has been inhabited since at least the early first century AD, and its harbour, making it a good trading hub, is probably the reason it earned the name of by. Even today, it’s still the only settlement on Gotland that can really be called a town. Many other settlements on the island have names referring to their waterside location, ending in vik (bay), holm (islet) or ö (island).

READ ALSO: The most Instagramable spots on Gotland


Visby. Photo: Jerker Andersson/imagebank.sweden.se

Uppsala

The university town of Uppsala has a long history, and its name is at least 1,000 years old.

But longer ago, it was known as Östra Aros, meaning Eastern Estuary and referring to where the river Fyrisån met Lake Mälaren. This was a counterpart to Västra Aros (Western Estuary) which over the years became melded into one word, the city name Västerås. 

Uppsala was the name given to a nearby town, the seat of the archbishop from the early 12th century. The seat was moved to Östra Aros about 100 years later and the name Uppsala moved with it, replacing Östra Aros, while the original Uppsala is today known as Galma Uppsala. 

All slightly confusing, and to add to that, it’s not entirely clear what Uppsala actually means. It was mostly likely named to differentiate it from another village called Sala, and the word sala could have been used to refer to a ceremonial building or just to buildings in general.


Uppsala. Photo: Samir Hadi/imagebank.sweden.se

Kiruna

This northern city was earlier called Luossavaara, taking its name from a mountain known as Luossavárri in the Sami language. The other major mountain in the area is called Gironvárri in the Sami language, literally meaning ‘mountain ridge’, and Kiirunavaara in Finnish.

These mountains would turn out to be crucial in the city’s mining industry, and in the late 19th century plans began to be drawn up to start mining the ore and build a town in the nearby area. Kiruna was suggested as a shorter name that was easy for Swedish-speakers to pronounce (note that the Finnish double ‘i’ was reduced to a single one). And that’s the name that’s stuck.


Kiruna. Photo: JonatanStålhös/imagebank.sweden.se

Jokkmokk

This is a name with a confusing story behind it. It’s also known as Jåhkåmåhkke and Johkamohkki in the indigenous Sami languages, while the Sami name Dálvvadis (‘winter settlement’, from dálvve meaning ‘winter’) is also used. The area has long been a place where Sami have stayed during the winter, and even today is famous for its winter market in February.

Jåhkåmåhkke literally means ‘bend in the brook/stream’, but there is no stream that matches this description in the area. The name is thought to have originally included the word muorkke, a Sami word describing a strip of land between two rivers, which more accurately describes Jokkmokk’s geography.


The winter market in Jokkmokk. Photo: Asaf Kliger/imagebank.sweden.se

Linköping

If you’ve spent much time around the south of Sweden, you’ll have seen the word köping pop up on a lot of city names, including the town of Köping, as well as Linköping, Nyköping, Norrköping and more.

Swedish learners might recognise the root of the verb köpa (to buy), and that’s where these towns get their names: köping was used to refer to market or trading towns. In the mid 19th century, the Swedish government gave a few dozen of the country’s 2,500 municipalities the right to be a city (stad). A further eight places were defined as köpingar, which was a midway status between städer and municipalköpingar. The number of köpingar rose to reach 95 over the following century.

Many of the towns that incorporated köping into their name later became official städer, but their names often didn’t change. In the early 1970s, many of the distinctions between different municipalities were removed, so you won’t hear the word köping used much, but it lives on in multiple towns.

As for where the first part of the name comes from, this is less obvious than in the case of Nyköping or Norrköping, where the prefixes denote location. One theory is that Linköping was named after the historic Lionga ting assembly in the area, and one document dating back to the 1100s names Liunga Kauping in a list of Swedish church locations.

Member comments

  1. Very interesting article and would love to read more about other cities/towns names as well as street names!

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For members

SWEDISH TRADITIONS

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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