Swedish word of the day: ensamhet

Today's word of the day is the Swedish word for "loneliness" – but why are Swedes considered some of the loneliest people in the world?

Swedish word of the day: ensamhet
Today's word of the day is "loneliness". But why are Swedes considered a lonely culture? Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

The Swedish word for loneliness is ensamhet. It can literally be translated as “onesomeness”, and describes the feeling of loneliness or feeling alone. The adjective is ensam, so if you want to say that you live alone, you would say jag bor ensam.

Both ensamhet and ensam can refer to involuntary and voluntary loneliness – saying jag bor ensam (“I live alone”) does not necessarily mean that you are unhappy about living alone, but jag känner mig ensam (“I feel lonely”) implies that you don’t really want to be alone.

If you want to talk about living alone with no connotations of feeling lonely, you could say jag bor själv.

The word ensamhet is made up of ensam – alone, which in turn comes from en or “one” – as well as het, a suffix similar to German -heit which can be loosely translated as “-ness” in English.

Other examples of words made up of a Swedish adjective with the suffix -het are nyhet (“news”, literally “new-ness”), frihet (“freedom”, literally “free-ness”) and hemlighet (“a secret”, literally “secret-ness”).

Swedish also has a word for being alone with another person: tvåsamhet or “twosomeness”, which can describe the feeling of being a couple or “twosome”.

This can be either positive or negative – it can be the feeling of feeling part of a team, sharing a life together, or it can describe a couple who spend so much time with each other that it is detrimental to their other social relationships.

Those on the lookout for a partner may say they miss the feeling of tvåsamhet from sharing their life with someone else, or those recently out of a relationship may describe choosing to go it alone after experiencing that the tvåsamhet stifled their own independence.

Polyamorous relationships also a word for describing this feeling: flersamhet, described by the Swedish Academy Dictionary as a “close relationship among multiple people”.

But why have we chosen ensamhet as a word of the day?

According to European statistics, Swedes have the highest rate of single-person households in the EU, followed by Denmark and Finland. 

Over 40 percent of Swedes live in single-person households, according to statistics from 2020, with the young and the elderly more likely to live alone, partly due to the fact that young people move away from home earlier than in other countries, and also the fact that multi-generational households where the young and the elderly live together are unusual in Sweden.

This has led many to describe Swedes as the most lonely people in the world, topping international “loneliness lists”, and sparking many immigrants to Sweden to complain of experiencing loneliness, saying that it can be hard to make friends with Swedes.

But ensamhet is not only seen as a negative. Sweden has an individualistic culture rather than a collectivist culture, with independence considered a highly-valued trait. An old Swedish proverb reflecting this emphasis on independence is ensam är stark, or “alone is strong”.

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist active in the latter half of the 20th century, wrote about Sweden that “there is a high preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families only”, as opposed to collectivist societies where “people belong to ‘in-groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty”.

A feature-length documentary into this individualistic culture and the effects it may have had on Swedish loneliness, titled The Swedish Theory of Love, was released in 2015. In the documentary film, the director, Erik Gandini, examines how individualistic culture has affected Swedish society since the 1960s, and whether this culture has led to increased social isolation.

The film is available to watch on SVT (in Swedish).

Example sentences:

Det är skönt att bo själv, jag har familj och vänner nära så jag känner mig aldrig ensam.

It’s nice living alone, I have family and friends nearby so I never feel lonely.

Jag pallade inte tvåsamheten så jag lämnade honom och gick med i ett kollektiv istället.

I couldn’t handle the “twosomeness” so I left him and joined a commune instead.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus 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.