Swedish word of the day: haveri

the word haveri written on a blackboard next to the swedish flag
Haveri, a word with an interesting history. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Today's word of the day has led to a debate about Sweden's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The second report by the independent Corona Commission, set up by the government last year to investigate Sweden’s pandemic response, described it as a haveri that large-scale testing was initially delayed by discussions between different actors about responsibility and funding.

Outgoing Prime Minister Stefan Löfven took issue with the use of the word haveri, telling Swedish news agency TT in an interview: “Haveri, I think that’s stretching it. It sounds like the entire society collapses, and that’s not true. I think haveri is a strong word.”

This article won’t look at Sweden’s pandemic response, but we will take a closer look at the word haveri itself.

In the original Swedish version of the second report, the Corona Commission writes about the initial testing strategy: “Kommissionen anser att det knappast kan beskrivas som annat än ett haveri att en diskussion om ansvar och finansiering bidrog till att någon storskalig provtagning inte kom till stånd förrän den första vågen var över.”

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The official English translation translates haveri as “complete failure” and reads: “The Commission is of the view that it can hardly be described as anything other than a complete failure when a discussion about responsibility and funding was a factor in preventing any large-scale testing getting started until the first wave was over.”

KEY POINTS: The new verdict on Sweden’s coronavirus response

Haveri has a wide range of meanings, including “failure”, “disaster”, “accident” or “train wreck” – both literally and figuratively.

It can be used in Swedish to describe anything from something as serious as a plane crash (indeed, the Swedish Accident Investigation Authority, which is the government body that investigates civil or military accidents and incidents with the aim of improving safety, is called Statens haverikommission in Swedish) to a comparatively less serious computer failure.

“Complete failure” could also be translated as totalt misslyckande in Swedish, which would probably be seen as relatively “softer” than haveri. In any case, it’s an example of how words can’t always be translated verbatim, how they mean different things to different people, even when speaking the same language, and how a disagreement about an issue can often derail to an argument about semantics.

The word haveri has existed in Swedish since at least 1665, and comes from either the Low German haverie, the Dutch haverij, or the French avarie. According to the Swedish Academy’s dictionary, they probably stem from the Arabic awar, meaning “defect”.

Interestingly, the English word “average” also comes from awar. In fact, the word average originally referred to splitting the cost of the financial loss from goods damaged in transit, and only later did it take on its modern meaning of an estimation of a middle value.

One last thing: You may spot the word haveri in the Swedish compound noun rättshaverist and think it refers to someone breaking the law (rätt), but in fact the words are not related at all. Rättshaverist instead comes from the German word Rechthaberei and refers to a querulant, a person who insists on their right even down to minor grievances (rättshaverist in this sense literally means “a right-haver”).


Fartyget har havererat

The ship has broken down

Regeringens bostadspolitik är ett totalt haveri

The government’s housing policies are a complete failure

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 US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.

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