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Swedish word of the day: tant

Tant is more than just a word, it's a whole lifestyle.

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

The most common use of the word tant is as a slightly derogatory way of talking about an older woman, similar to how the word gubbe can be used to describe an older man. A tant is usually considered to be middle-aged or older, but can also be used ironically to describe younger women.

In the past, it was often used affectionately to refer to an older female family member, such as a great-aunt. Nowadays, some older women may consider the word somewhat of a compliment, whereas some may find it insulting, so it’s probably best to avoid using it unless you’re absolutely sure whether the person in question would approve.

Although the word tant can be used to describe your aunt by marriage (i.e. the wife of one of your parent’s siblings), most Swedes would instead describe their aunt by marriage simply as their morbror or farbrors fru (the wife of your mother’s brother or your father’s brother), in order to avoid the negative connotations it now has.

One translation of tant used in the derogatory sense could be “little old lady”, seen in compound words using tant describing styles or objects which tants are known for. Two examples of these words could be tantfrisyr (“little old lady haircut”) or tantbil (“little old lady car”).

A tant also usually has a tantväska (“tant bag”). One famous tantväska was caught on film in 1985, when protester Danuta Danielsson was photographed hitting a marching neo-Nazi with her handbag. Her image, immortalised in bronze by artist Susanna Arwin, is shown below.

The statue “The Handbag as a Weapon” by Susanna Arwin on its unveiling in 2018. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

These words can also be used to tease someone who is usually far too young to be classified as a real tant, by saying something like vilken trevlig tantbil du har skaffat! (“What a nice little-old-lady car you’ve bought!”) or to ironically refer to something tantig you find yourself doing, such as in the example kan du hålla min tantväska? (“Can you hold my tant bag?”).

Similarly, you might ask your friend or partner for their opinion on an outfit or haircut by asking if it makes you look tantig (“like an old lady, frumpy, matronly”).

Another use of the word which has cropped up in recent years is the compound word kulturtant (“culture tant“), which was added to the Swedish dictionary in 2015. According to the Swedish dictionary, this word means “a woman who consumes or dedicates time to culture”.

This description from journalist Måns Uggla in an article headlined “Being a kulturtant is among the finest things you can be” in the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper is perhaps more accurate: “The prejudiced image of a kulturtant is an above middle-aged woman, with Gudrun Sjödén clothes and opinions from the left-wing hippie ideals of the 1960s”.

He further describes kulturtanter as “the women who keep the cultural wheels of Sweden turning”.

Designer Gudrun Sjödén. Photo: Malin Hoelstad/SvD/TT

So, there you have the word tant. More than just a word, tantar are the matriarchs of Swedish society, watching over us with their handbags full of bridgeblandning sweets at the ready. Don’t get on the wrong side of them, though – they’re not afraid to use those handbags.

Example sentences:

Är den här klänning inte lite tantig? Nej älskling, allt klär en skönhet.

Isn’t this dress a bit frumpy? No, darling, everything suits a beauty.

Har du sett tanten i parken med sin lilla hund? Han heter uppenbarligen Potatis.

Have you seen the old lady in the park with her little dog? His name is Potato, apparently.

Det var trevligt, men nu ska jag hem till tanten!

It’s been fun, but I should head home to the missus!

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. As an 85-year-old immigrant from the USA (20 years ago) I have some words to say about old age. People grow old, if they are lucky and/or take care of themselves. Some learn stuff, and even serve as exemplars to younger people. Others just keep to themselves and enjoy what they can from their memories and their current situation. Old people are not a different species. Typically, they are more themselves than younger people who are still trying out more than one persona to fit into the portion of the world they currently live in. Those who do not hear well or ambulate well should not be pitied or be objects of humor; they are whole human beings.

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Swedish word of the day: soppatorsk

In Sweden, if you run out of petrol on the road you have 'soup-cod'.

Swedish word of the day: soppatorsk

Soppatorsk is a slang word which literally means soup-cod, soppa is ‘soup’, and torsk is ‘cod’, but is not to be understood as ‘cod soup’, that would be torsksoppa. Instead the two words that make up soppatorsk have additional meanings in slang. One of the additional meanings of torsk is ‘failure’, which is the intended meaning here. The verb att torska, ‘to cod’, is to fail, or to lose, to get caught. The meaning of the noun torsk here is ‘failure’. And soppa is simply a slang term for ‘petrol’. 

The proper term for what soppatorsk means is bensinstopp, which means ‘engine failure due to running out of petrol’. It is used in the exact same way.

An additional meaning of torsk that you should be mindful of is ‘a john’, as in someone who frequents prostitutes. So you cannot call someone ‘a failure’ by calling them a torsk, that would mean calling them a sex-buyer.  

Soppatorsk is quite common in use and has been around since about 1987. The use of its two parts is also quite common. And torska, as in ‘getting caught’ or ‘losing’ is even a bit older, dating back to at least 1954. We haven’t been able to find out how long soppa has been used to mean ‘petrol’.

A few examples of the use of soppa and torska in the senses that they carry in soppatorsk are : ‘Vi har ingen soppa i tanken,’ means ‘We have no petrol in the tank’. ‘Vi torskade is a common way of saying ‘We lost’. 

Practice makes perfect, so try to use the word of the day, here are a few example sentences. 

Example sentences:

Nä, det är inte sant, soppatorsk.

No, I can’t believe it, we’re out of petrol.

Full tank tack, man vill ju inte få soppatorsk ute i vildmarken.

Fill her up please, don’t wanna run out of petrol out in the wilderness.

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.