Swedish word of the day: surströmming

In Sweden, there are several words for herring.

Swedish word of the day: surströmming
Your Swedish challenge of the day. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Surströmming is the word for ‘fermented herring’, and it’s been a part of traditional (and smelly) Swedish cuisine for centuries. One of the most putrid-smelling foods in the world, eating this delicacy is one of the final frontiers for proving you’ve adapted to the Swedish palate.

It’s a controversial food to say the least, with several airlines banning the carriage of surströmming, and viral challenges where people film their first attempt eating the fish.

The sur means ‘sour’ and relates to the acidic taste. To prepare surströmming, fish caught at the start of the season are preserved with salt to stop them rotting.

The process takes about six months, so the first date on which you can eat surströmming is known as the surströmmingspremiär, traditionally the third Thursday in August. In 2021, that’s August 19th so if you’re reading this on Thursday, happy first day of fermented herring season! 

There are guidelines on how best to eat the dish, the most important of which is to try it outdoors due to the odour. The traditional way to serve it is with onion, sour cream, bread, potatoes and a glass of snaps – not straight out of the can.

Most languages find one word for ‘herring’ is sufficient, but in Sweden there’s a difference between herring caught south of the Kalmar Strait, which are sill, and those caught in the Baltic north of Kalmar, which are strömming.

Is there any point in making this difference?

It’s based on a royal request from the 16th century which established the boundary, but whether the fish are actually different is up for debate. Generally, sill are larger and fattier than strömming, and some research suggests there are slight genetic differences, despite being part of the same species and very closely related.


Jag äter det mesta, till och med surströmming

I eat most things, even fermented herring

För många i Sverige är det en tradition att äta surströmming varje sommar

For many people in Sweden it’s a tradition to eat fermented herring every summer

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Swedish word of the day: hyfsat

Today’s word will help you say that things are going alright or that Peter is okay at karaoke.

Swedish word of the day: hyfsat

It is a decent word, and okay one, rather good, and it has a well-polished past.

Hyfsat or hyfsad most often means that something is ‘okay’, ‘decent’, ‘alright’ or even ‘rather good’, which can apply to a great number of things. And its etymological cousin hyfs, is a quality of character. 

Behind both of these words and their uses lies a lesser known verb, to hyfsa. A word which is perhaps slowly becoming out of date. 

But hyfsa, in spite of its slow descent into the archaic, is a very useful word, as it has the general meaning of ‘to tidy up’. That is to say it can be used for a number of situations that imply a bit of tidying up: whether it be your own appearance, like trimming a bit of your hair, evening out your fringe; or fixing a bit in your garden, like trimming the hedge. 

You could even use it to describe a quick tidy up at home ahead of a visit, like giving a vase or some other ornament a bit of a polish, or just putting some things in their right place. 

From hyfsa we get both hyfs and hyfsat

Hyfs, as previously mentioned, has to do with character, more precisely with behaviour. Hyfs is simply to have a well-polished or presentable manner (especially toward your elders): att ha hyfs, ‘to be polite’, or att vara ohyfsad, ‘to be rude’ or un-hyfsed.

Young people might not use it as much anymore, but all Swedes know the word.

Hyfsat or hyfsad on the other hand describes the quality of something or how someone is at something. Something that is hyfsat will do, it is okay and acceptable, implying that it would be so even to the person you are addressing.

Beyond that it can also be used to describe your own or someone else’s performance at karaoke, or any other thing, if you ever get the question. It is also an appreciation of things, and can also describe something as being ‘moderately so’, ‘not too’ or ‘fairly so’, as in en hyfsat snar framtid, meaning ‘a not too distant future’. In some sense it brings to mind that ever elusive word: lagom.

Generally, one can say that it implies that something is acceptable, and by linguistic extension, its root in hyfsa, that some work has been done to achieve that. Or in other words, that whatever it is it is not entirely uncared for, lacking in effort or preparation. It has done enough to be deserving of basic approval. It is hyfsat. 

Example sentences

Hur gick det på karaoken? Det gick hyfsat bra – “How did it go at karaoke? It went fairly well.”

Är Peter bra på karaoke? Han är hyfsad. – “Is Peter any good at karaoke? He’s alright.”

Hörru, hur går det med den där rapporten? Hyfsat – “Hey, how’s that report coming along? Not too bad.”

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.