Swedish word of the day: brasa

Today we've chosen a word that is especially appropriate for this time of year.

Swedish word of the day: brasa
The word has a second meaning in colloquial Swedish. Image: nito103/Depositphotos

Brasa means 'fire', but is a bit different to the two more common Swedish words for 'fire': eld and brand.

To understand when to use which word, remember that eld refers to smaller, controlled fires (for example in a fireplace) or to fire in general (for example in the Swedish translation of A Song of Ice and Fire, Sagan om is och eld) and brand refers to larger, uncontrolled fires, such as a skogsbrand (forest fire) or gräsbrand (grass fire). You'll also use eld in the phrase sätta eld på (to set fire to), even if you're talking about a fire which develops into a brand.

That brings us to brasa. There's a bit of an overlap with eld, because a brasa is a controlled fire. You can use it to talk about an indoor fire in a fireplace, but it's most commonly used to talk about bonfires, or outdoor wood fires.

The Swedish celebration most closely associated with bonfires is Walpurgis, a festival held on April 30th with its roots in older pagan rituals. Fire played a big part in this start-of-spring celebration, and was intended to ward off bad spirits, cleanse the land and ensure fertility during the summer.

READ MORE: Walpurgis Night: Why are Swedes dancing around bonfires?

These bonfires are often called majbrasor (May fires) because of the May 1st public holiday the following day.

Multilingual readers might notice a link to Spanish and Portuguese, in which brasa means 'embers'. In all three cases, brasa probably comes from the French word la braise (embers), which is related to the English term 'braise', as in 'braised meats' and has a Germanic origin. 

Brasa actually has a second meaning in colloquial Swedish: it's a slang term for 'bottom/backside'. It exists in the expression ta dig i brasan (literally 'touch your bottom') which first appeared in written Swedish in a 1930 book by Bengt Ljusdal, at which time it was an extremely scandalous thing to say. It's still a phrase best avoided, as are other variants such as 'ta dig i rumpan'. 

But when you're talking about a bonfire, brasa is the word to use.


Det är dags att tända brasan

It's time to light the bonfire

I Sverige firar man valborg med brasor

In Sweden, people celebrate Walpurgis with bonfires

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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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 to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.