Swedish word of the day: sköldpadda

Today's word of the day is a great example of Sweden's more literal way of naming animals.

the word sköldpadda on a black background beside a swedish flag
Today's word of the day is less about the word, and more about what it says about how Swedes name animals. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Sköldpadda is the Swedish word for turtle, also used for the turtle’s non-amphibious cousin, a tortoise.

But why have we chosen to highlight this as the Swedish word of the day today?

The answer is simple, sköldpadda is not only a great word in its own right, but it also demonstrates the Swedish language’s more literal way of naming animals, when compared with English.

The literal translation of sköldpadda is “shield toad”, which is a pretty accurate description of a tortoise’s appearance.

Other entertaining – and very literal – Swedish animal names include näbbdjur or “beaked animal” for a duck-billed platypus, and fladdermus or “flap mouse” for a bat.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that superhero Batman is known as fladdermusmannen – “flap mouse man” in Swedish – but his original Swedish name – used between 1951 and 1990 was läderlappen or “leather patch”, the Swedish name for a type of bat known as a Vesper bat in English.

The Swedish word for sloth is sengångare, or “late-walker”, reflecting this animal’s relaxed attitude to getting anywhere fast – some sloths move so slowly that green moss has been known to grow in their fur.

Similarly, a bältdjur – “belted animal” – is the Swedish term for an armadillo – although, the English word – originally from Spanish, meaning “small armoured animal” – is also pretty literal.

Another Nordic animal with a literal name is an isbjörn or an “ice bear” – a slightly more literal translation than English’s “polar bear”.

Visitors to aquariums may have come across a bläckfisk or “ink fish” – a squid, or even an åttaarmade bläckfisk – an “eight-armed ink fish” or octopus.

A noshörning or “nose-horn” is the Swedish word for a rhinocerous, and a flodhäst or “river horse” is a hippopotamus – although technically these animals’ English names are also literal descriptions – English just never got around to translating them from ancient Greek, where hippos means “horse”, and potamós means “river”. Similarly, the original Greek rhinokerōcomes from rhis “nose” and keras, “horn”.

Are there any literal Swedish animal names we’ve missed? Let us know!

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.

Member comments

  1. Sköldpadda along with Arbetsförmedlingen are my two favourite words. I love the sound of them, the complexity of them (from someone learning Swedish from an English background) and i love Swedish compound words. I mean, how long is too long for a word? 🤷‍♂️

    Thanks for a great article Becky

  2. Many thanks Becky + colleagues for the Word of the Day articles. Always interesting. Here’s a few more zoology words:

    tusenfoting – thousand feet/footed (used for both centipede and millipede)
    nattfjäril – night butterfly (moth)
    fjärilslarv – butterfly larva (caterpillar)
    nötskrika – nut screech (?!) (jay)
    vattenödla – water lizard (newt)

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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.