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Swedish word of the day: skärtorsdagen

Today, let's talk about the Swedish word for the day when witches fly away to dance with the devil.

Swedish word of the day: skärtorsdagen
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Yep.

The word is skärtorsdagen, which can be more simply translated as Maundy Thursday – the Thursday before Easter. In 2022, that’s April 14th.

Torsdag is the Swedish word for Thursday. Like the English word and most of the Nordic languages, this comes from the Norse God Thor, in contrast to Romance languages where the name for Thursday usually derives from the Latin dies Jovis (Jupiter’s Day).

According to folklore, Thursday was the day of the week most closely associated with witchcraft and magic.

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Maundy Thursday in particular was known as the day when witches would fly off to the mythical Blåkulla to dance with the devil. Swedes would often go so far as hiding their household brooms so they couldn’t be stolen by any witches, and use other methods to stop them entering their homes, such as painting crosses on the door.

Since around the 1800s, it’s been a Swedish tradition for young children to dress up as witches (often with a broomstick, cat and coffee pot as accessories) around the Easter holiday, known as påskkärringar or ‘Easter hags’, and knock on neighbours’ doors to ask for sweet treats.

But as for where the word skärtorsdagen comes from, it’s actually related to the Christian tradition.

Christians mark Maundy Thursday as the day when Jesus Christ had his final meal with his disciples and washed each of their feet, an important cleansing ritual which plays a big part in the religion today – ‘maundy’ comes from a word meaning ‘foot-washing’.

Skära means ‘to cut’ in today’s Swedish, but several centuries ago it referred to cleaning or purification, from an older Norse word that meant ‘clean/beautiful/pure’, and that’s where the name of the celebration comes from. Another place you’ll see skär used in this sense is in another religious term, Skärselden, which means Purgatory (the place where, in Christian belief, souls undergo purification before they can ascend to heaven).

Although skärtorsdagen hasn’t been a public holiday in Sweden since 1772, some workplaces do allow employees to leave early.

Careful staying in bed too long today though, or you risk being called skärklumpen (clean lump).

Example sentences

Skärtorsdagen är en av årets största trafikdagar.

Maundy Thursday is one of the busiest days of the year for traffic.

Systembolaget är öppet som vanligt på skärtorsdagen.

Systembolaget is open as usual on Maundy Thursday.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

Member comments

  1. the article on skarstorsdagen says that maundy comes from a word meaning footwashing. While footwashing is part of the liturgy for Maundy Thursday the word maundy actually comes from the Latin maundate which means I command as in John 13:14 “If I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet you I command that you should wash one another’s feet” and and verse 34 which is. “I give you a comandment that you love one another.” It is interesting that Skarstorsdagen might actually mean cleaning day.

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SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

Swedish word of the day: liga

You may have this word in your native language or recognise it from football leagues such as the German Bundesliga or Spain's La Liga. Liga has a similar meaning in Swedish, too, with one crucial difference.

Swedish word of the day: liga

Liga originally comes from Latin ligāre (“to bind”). In most languages, liga means “league”, a group of individuals, organisations or nations who are united in some way.

Similar words exist in many European languages, such as Dutch, Spanish, Czech and Polish liga, Italian lega, French ligue and Romanian ligă.

A league is almost always something positive or neutral in other languages, but in Swedish a liga is something negative – a criminal gang, with the word ligist referring to a (usually young, male) gang member, thug or hooligan.

Political or diplomatic leagues are usually translated into Swedish as förbund (“union” or “association”) rather than liga: one example is the Swedish term for the League of Nations, Nationernas förbund.

The only exception to this rule is sport, where the popularity of international football leagues such as the Bundesliga and the Premier League has lessened the negative meaning somewhat in this context. Fans of hockey will be familiar with SHL, Svenska hockeyligan, and Sweden’s handball league is referred to as handbollsligan.

The history behind liga’negative meaning in Swedish can be traced back to the Thirty Years’ War, which took place largely within the Holy Roman Empire between 1618 and 1648.

Essentially, the Thirty Years’ War began as a fight between Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire, with Catholic states forming the Catholic League and Protestant states forming the Protestant Union.

Sweden was – and still is – Lutheran, meaning that, when they got involved in the war in 1630, their enemies were the Catholic League – or the katolska ligan in Swedish, with its members being referred to as ligister or “league-ists”.

King Gustav II Adolf eventually beat the Catholic League in 1631 at the Battle of Breitenfeld, ultimately leading to the formal dissolution of the league in 1635 in the Peace of Prague, which forbade alliances from forming within the Holy Roman Empire.

Although this may seem like ancient history, Swedes still don’t trust a liga – the word’s negative connotations have survived for almost 400 years.

Swedish vocabulary:

Jag är lite orolig för honom, han har börjat hänga med ett gäng ligister.

I’m a bit worried about him, he’s started hanging out with a group of thugs.

Manchester United har vunnit den engelska ligan flest gånger, men City är mästare just nu.

Manchester United have won the Premier League the most times, but City are the current champions.

De säger att det står en liga bakom det senaste inbrottsvågen.

They’re saying there’s a gang behind the recent spate of break-ins.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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