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

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For members


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.