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SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

Swedish word of the day: polsk riksdag

The literal translation of today's phrase of the day is "Polish parliament". Why is this a phrase in Swedish, and what does it mean?

Swedish word of the day: polsk riksdag
What's so chaotic about the Polish parliament? Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

polsk riksdag (literally: “Polish parliament”) is a Swedish term for a chaotic, disordered meeting where no consensus is reached. The phrase polsk riksdag can therefore be used to describe any kind of chaotic situation where many people are talking over each other, or even a situation where a large group of people are trying to decide on something but can’t agree.

If you and a group of friends wanted to go out for some drinks and were trying to decide which bar to go to, but everyone in the group kept suggesting a different place and refusing to listen to each other, you could complain that the situation had turned into a polsk riksdag.

The phrase also exists in other countries close to Poland, including Danish (polsk rigsdag), Finnish (Puolalainen parlamentti), Norwegian (polsk riksdag), German (Polnischer Reichstag) and Russian (Polskij parlament).

So, why does this phrase exist? Do Swedes think that Polish people are chaotic and disorganised?

Well, no. The phrase does, however, have its roots in Polish parliamentary history. It all goes back to the Polish parliament of the 17th and 18th centuries, referred to as the sejm (the term sejm literally means “gathering” in Polish, and has since 1918 referred only to the lower house of Poland’s bicameral parliament).

In the Kingdom of Poland, the sejm was the general term for parliament as a whole, made up of the chamber of deputies, the Senate and the King.

In the 1600s, during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the sejm adopted a principle stating that all Polish noblemen were equal, and that every member of the sejm therefore had an absolute veto. This meant that, in order for the sejm to adopt any policy, all members must be in complete agreement, which obviously made it extremely difficult to pass any laws which were even slightly controversial.

The Polish Sejm back in 1622. Photo: Jakub Lauri, scanned by Polaco77/Wikimedia Commons

By the 1660s, this principle had given Poland’s parliament a reputation as the most chaotic in Europe.

All a representative had to do was say (or, as was often the case, shout) the phrase nie pozwalam! (I do not approve it!) or Latin sisto activitatem (I stop the activity!) in order to veto any proposal.

This free veto (Latin: liberum veto), did not just veto the proposal being discussed, but it forced an immediate end to the current session and voided any legislation which had already been passed in that session. This got so out of hand that in 1688, parliament was dissolved before representatives had even started negotiating.

As many as 53 of the roughly 150 sejms held between 1573 and 1763 failed to pass any legislation at all, mostly because of this free veto.

Furthermore, the system was vulnerable to outside influence. All a neighbouring state with bad intentions had to do was bribe one member of parliament to veto any attempts to modernise Poland. Russia and Prussia were particularly notorious for doing this.

Eventually, things got so bad that the Polish government was on the brink of collapse, until finally, in 1791, the free veto was abolished, establishing the principle of majority rule.

Grzegorz Ekiert, political scientist at Harvard, blames the free veto system for the ultimate collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, writing the following: “The principle of the liberum veto preserved the feudal features of Poland’s political system, weakened the role of the monarchy, led to anarchy in political life, and contributed to the economic and political decline of the Polish state. Such a situation made the country vulnerable to foreign invasions and ultimately led to its collapse.”

So, keep that in mind next time you’re in a chaotic business meeting where no one can come to an agreement on anything,  although it’s probably a good idea to avoid shouting nie pozwalam in an attempt to put an end to the chaos.

Example sentences:

Det blev en riktig polsk riksdag igår, ingen kunde komma överens om var vi skulle äta.

It turned into a real Polish parliament yesterday, no one could agree on where we should eat.

Men snälla, kan ni inte sluta prata i munnen på varann? Det är en polsk riksdag härinne!

Please, can’t you stop talking over each other? It’s a Polish parliament in here!

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 USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

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 lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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