Swedish word of the day: bastu

If this Swedish word reminds you of nudity, you're not entirely wrong.

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

An important thing to know in Sweden is that the Swedish word for sauna is not sauna, which is an old Finnish word meaning “earth pit”. The sauna dates back thousands of years in Finland, but has in modern times developed into the log cabin steam bath that we recognise today.

In Swedish, it’s instead referred to as a bastu, which is short for badstuga, a word that literally means “bath cottage” or “bathing room”. The word stuga also appears in words such as tvättstuga (“laundry room/building”), förstuga (“porch”, often shortened to farstu) and simply stuga (“cottage”).

While not as massively popular as in neighbouring Finland, Sweden also has a strong sauna tradition.

Sweden was for centuries a relatively poor country, so at first, it was mainly used around special occasions such as Christmas. But it really gained ground in the first half of the 20th century when around 10,000 public saunas were built across the country – partly as a drive to organise school bathing sessions, to make sure that all schoolchildren no matter their social class could tend to their personal hygiene.

Today, most Swedish swimming pools will have a sauna. They’re especially popular after cold winter dips in icy lakes.

You’re usually stark naked in the sauna, but you’re expected to bring a towel to sit on. In fact, swimsuits are often completely banned from public saunas – this is because the chlorine used in the water at swimming pools can cause health and breathing issues when it vaporises.

It is usually OK to wrap the towel around you if you’re uncomfortable with nudity. Few people will be truly offended.

If you’re picturing naked people happily running around outside in the snow after their sauna session, hitting each other with birch twigs, stop it immediately. That’s Finland, not Sweden (and even Finnish people may argue that it’s a bit too stereotypical an image of their country).


Åh, vad varmt och skönt det är i bastun

Oh, it’s so nice and warm in the sauna

Ska vi basta?

Let’s use the sauna! (or “shall we use the sauna?”)

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 US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.

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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.