Swedish word of the day: kärlek

On Valentine's Day, let's take a look at the long history of the Swedish word for love.

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

To say “I love you” in Swedish, you can say jag älskar dig or jag är kär i dig, the second of which literally means “I’m in love with you”.

The verb “to love” is älska in Swedish, while the noun “love” is kärlek. Note: watch out for prepositions. In English you talk about “love for someone”, but in Swedish you’d say kärlek till någon (“love to someone”).

The word kär has been around in the Nordic languages for centuries and centuries, and is related to the French term cher (dear), which itself comes from the Latin carus, meaning “precious” or “expensive” and came to be used as a term of affection about people who were precious or dear to the writer/speaker.

That’s why you could in theory begin letters to friends and relatives with the word kära, for example kära mamma or kära Martin. In practice, however, this is much less common than “Dear so-and-so” in English; in Swedish, a simple hej (hello) at the start of a letter usually suffices.

You can also use phrases like (min) kära mamma in speech (“my dear mother” or “mother dear” – note that the Swedish doesn’t have the old-fashioned ring that these phrases do in English!).

Meanwhile, English “dear” is used as a term of affection (and in some dialects, means “expensive”) while the related word dyr in Swedish only means “expensive” in terms of price. French cher continues to have both meanings.

So where does the lek in kärlek come from? Lek means “game” in today’s Swedish, but many years ago it had a broader meaning, often referring to dance, sport, or other quick movements. So the noun kärlek comes from the idea of strong, turbulent emotions produced by love. 


Min kärlek till dig är som en brinnande eld

My love for you is like a burning fire

Hur vet man att det är äkta kärlek?

How do you know if it’s true love?

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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.