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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Swedish word of the day: tvärtom

Here's a word that's surprisingly useful, even if it can sound odd when directly translated into English.

Swedish word of the day: tvärtom
Is this a difficult word to use? Tvärtom! Image: nito103/Depositphotos

Tvärtom can mean 'the other way round', 'vice versa' or 'on the contrary' depending on how it's used.

For example: jag jobbar för att leva och inte tvärtom (I work in order to live; not vice versa) or, for Harry Potter fans, det är trollstaven som väljer trollkarlen, och inte tvärtom (it's the wand which chooses the wizard, and not the other way round).

You can also use it as a one-word response, equivalent to 'on the contrary' or 'quite the opposite' in English, although it's more casual than those phrases. For example: hittade du ett jobb i Sverige efter du flyttade hit? – Tvärtom! means 'did you find a job in Sweden after you moved here? – Quite the opposite!'; in other words, you're saying you found the job first and moved after. Or: är du arg på mig? – Nej, tvärtom! ('Are you angry at me? – No, quite the opposite!')

Tvärtom comes from the word tvär, meaning 'cross', and so it means something like 'crossed over'. Tvär comes up in several compound words, such as tvärgata (literally 'cross-street', meaning a street that crosses another, usually larger street), or the instrument tvärflöjt (literally 'cross-flute') which is played by blowing into it from the side.

Tvär can also mean 'sharp' or 'sudden'; for example in the verb tvärbromsa (literally 'to brake sharply/suddenly', or 'to slam on the brakes'). And when you use tvär on its own as an adjective, usually to describe a person, it's a negative term meaning something like sullen/moody/disagreeable, for example han var en tvär typ (he was a disagreeable kind of guy).

But when you use tvärtom, you're talking about flipping a concept or idea mentioned earlier in the conversation on its head.

Examples

Det är inte bara invandrare som borde lära sig om den svenska kulturen, utan också tvärtom

It's not only immigrants who should learn about Swedish culture, but also vice versa

Tror du att du pratar bättre svenska efter en öl? Tvärtom!

Do you think you speak better Swedish after a beer? Quite the opposite!

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

​​Swedish word of the day: fisförnäm

Today’s word is an expression Swedes use when other people think a little too highly of themselves. 

​​Swedish word of the day: fisförnäm

Fisförnäm is a composition of the two words fis, meaning ‘fart’, primarily one with a hissing sound, and förnäm, which means ‘noble, distinguished’. The combination is a slight slur for someone who is ‘stuck up, cocky, or thinks themselves better than others’ but who in actuality is not better at all. Perhaps somewhat comparable to the American expression of ​​’thinking the sun shines out of one’s own arse’ or simply ‘self-important’.

The late linguistics professor Jan Strid once explained fisförnäm on Swedish radio. While doing so he explained that the reason that fis refers to hissing farts is because it most likely has the original meaning of ‘blowing’. Which explains the word askfis, ‘ash fart’, meaning the youngest child which does nothing but sit by the fire blowing into the ashes and getting them all over the face. Then there is the bärfis, the ‘berry fart’, the insect commonly known in English as either shield bug or stink bug. There the word obviously refers to the bad smell produced by the bug. 

The late great professor then went on to explain how fisförnäm has a sibling in struntförnäm which means the same thing. Strunt, which in Swedish means ‘nonsense’, comes from German with the original meaning of ‘dung’, ‘dirt’ or ‘filth’. So struntförnäm in a way means ‘filth noble’ and by extension fisförnäm has the same original meaning: someone who says they are great, but they are really not better at all.

And that is a word that in a way is quintessentially Swedish. Why? Because of Jantelagen

Many of you are surely already familiar with the Law of Jante, but for those of you who are not, Jantelagen, first formalized in a satirical novel by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, is a set of rules or attitudes that many Swedes, Norwegians and Danes supposedly espouse. You might enjoy having a look at celebrated Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård explaining it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Fisförnäm has been found in print as far back as 1954, some 21 years after the publication of Sandemose’s book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor), in 1933. So it is younger than the formalization of the Law of Jante, but there is probably no connection between the two besides the societal norms both are expressions of. And though the 10 rules of the so called Law of Jante were first expressed in the aforementioned book, the attitudes are much older. 

To think yourself better than others is still somewhat frowned upon in Sweden, even if it is true. If you are familiar with Swedish football history you might have seen this in the Swedish public’s reaction to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s rise to stardom. Some Swedes just could not stand his boisterous attitude, some still can not. But of course, fisförnäm is not applicable to Zlatan, since he is arguably the best Swedish footballer of all time. 

Fisförnäm is an insult, but not a bad one, and might even be used a bit jokingly. You could perhaps try to use it when someone does not want to join an activity that is a bit ridiculous. For reference (and a laugh) you might have a look at when famed Swedish show host Stina Dabrowski asked Margaret Thatcher to do a little skip in place on her show.

Example sentences:

Sluta var så fisförnäm nu, du kan väl va med?

Stop being so self-important, why not join in?

Nä, jag orkar inte följa med dit, de är alla så fisförnäma.

Oh no, I’d rather not go there, they are all so unduly haughty. 

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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