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Swedish word of the day: kärring

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Swedish word of the day: kärring
Image: nito103/Depositphotos
13:13 CEST+02:00
Today we look at a word that technically means 'woman', but you should be very careful about when you use it.

As we've noted before in this series, Swedish has a lot of words for 'man' and 'woman': kille, gubbe, and man for men and tjej, gumma, and kvinna for women. But that's just for starters.

Kärring is another way to say 'woman', but beware: this word is usually seen as derogatory and is often translated as 'hag', so be very wary as a non-native speaker.

It's reserved for older women only, and has connotations of foolishness and being unkempt as well, so the phrase som en kärring (like an old woman) is often used as an insult, for example hon klär sig som en kärring (she dresses like an old woman). It's also frequently combined with negative adjectives, such as galen kärring (crazy old woman), or some even less polite alternatives.  

However, that's not always the case. Sometimes kärring is used as a term of endearment, usually by an older man about his wife, and this is probably due to a misconception about the origin of the word. 

Kärring is sometimes spelled with only one 'r', which gives a clue into its history.

It comes from kärling, an older word for 'woman' related to karl (man), which still exists in Swedish today. Over time, the middle consonant cluster 'rl' got eroded down to 'rr' or 'r', a process which is called fricativisation or rhotacism in linguistics. 

So kärring has nothing to do with the word kär ('in love' or 'dear'), but many Swedes think it does, which might be why many older men use it as a term of affection for their partner. While karl was a Germanic word that can be traced back for centuries (and yes, this is the origin of the names Carl and Karl, which literally mean 'man'), kär comes from Latin carus (beloved), and is related to French cher and Italian caro as well as Norwegian kjær

As for why kärring has become loaded with such negative connotations, despite the neutral original meaning of kärling, that's probably due partly to a negative societal attitude towards older woman, and partly because the Swedish language had alternative neutral words for 'older woman', like gumma, so kärring's meaning became more specific.

You'll also find kärring in the compound noun påskkärring, which literally means 'Easter old woman' but is better translated as 'Easter witch' or 'Easter hag'. This is used to describe the witches who fly off on their broomsticks to dance with the devil at Easter. If that sentence sounded completely bizarre to you, read our explainer here.

Examples

Hon är en elak kärring!

She's a mean old woman!

Jag känner mig som en gammal kärring

I feel like an old woman

Do you have a favourite Swedish word you would like to nominate for our word of the day series? Get in touch by email or if you are a Member of The Local, log in to comment below.
 
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