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Swedish word of the day: bamba

Not a dance, but a place where kids eat.

Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Sveriges framsida, the frontside of Sweden, as many call Gothenburg, is a place known to have been voted Sweden’s best city, is one of the most sustainable cities in the world, and also the place with Sweden’s sexiest dialect.

Admittedly, I am from Gothenburg, so I may be biased, but I will tell you that sexy as the dialect may be (and I have been told that it is plenty of times), once in a while, like anyone from any region I imagine, I say a word that makes everyone stop and go, “What is he talking about?” This is one of those words. 

The word is used to designate a school dining hall, but apparently researchers have uncovered no provable origin for the word.

On Dialektbloggen, ‘The Dialect Blog’ of the Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore (Institutet för språk och folkminnen), Jenny Nilsson, a research archivist in Gothenburg, explains that the origin is not clear and that the term was probably invented by schoolchildren. People tend to assume that it is a contraction of the word barnbespisning, where barn means ‘child’ and bespisning can either mean ‘the act of feeding’ (usually on a larger scale) or ‘a dining hall’. 

The Swedish Academy also offers this explanation, where the entry for bamba reads: ‘attested since 1957; short form for barnbespisning’.

Jenny Nilsson further makes the point that Gothenburgers traditionally pronounce ‘rn’ as ‘n’, and that an ‘n’ before a ‘b’ in a word easily becomes an ‘m’ in the mouth. Which could then give us bamba.

Nilsson further writes that the date of origin of the word is also unclear, though it is attested since at least the 1950s. At the time, bamba was probably mainly used in Gothenburg, but after that it spread throughout the region, though the latest investigation into the matter seems to indicate that it is now receding back to Gothenburg. 

In an odd twist, news site Nyheter24 interviews the linguist Rune Westerlund who lives in Luleå on the topic of bamba. He explains that the word is also used in northern Kiruna, a town in the very very far north of Sweden. According to Westerblad it was also at one point used in his hometown of Luleå, which is about 270km southeast of Kiruna, though still in the far north of Sweden (it is a big place). The most logical explanation for this is influential immigrants from Gothenburg, according to Westerlund. 

Nyheter24 also includes another theory on the origin of the word, that bamba has a military connection. The ladies serving the food in the dining halls of the time were well known to have “a predilection for straight queue lines, strict controls on food intake, no running and fussing, and letting the food silence the mouth.”

Combining this ‘military atmosphere’ with Gothenburg’s well known penchant for puns, and BArnMatsBespisningsAnläggning, roughly ‘Children’s Food Feeding Facility’, could easily become bamba. That penchant for puns even has a name, it is called göteborgshumor, ‘Gothenburg humour.’

But alas, the mystery remains. 

The one lesson one can draw from this, if any, is to not go asking where you can find the bamba in any city but Gothenburg, or I suppose northern Kiruna, or you might find yourself dancing the night away to latin rock. 

Do you have any friends from Gothenburg? Ask them their favourite food they ate in bamba and if they can think of any other dialectal words from Gothenburg.

Ha det gött! 

Example sentences:

Vad serverar dom i bamban idag?

What are they serving in the dining hall today?

Man dansar inte här grabben! Vadå, är inte det här la bamba?

You don’t dance here, kiddo! What do you mean, is this not la bamba? 

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: tandfe

How the fee for a warrior's good luck charm became a fairy.

​​Swedish word of the day: tandfe

Tandfe means ‘tooth fairy’ in modern Swedish. Why mention the ‘modern’ bit? Well, because it didn’t always mean this. 

In the folklore of various countries, the tooth fairy is a winged creature that replaces a lost milk tooth (usually placed under a pillow or in a glass of water) for a gift, most often a coin or a bill. 

But this fairy is not even a fake fairy, it is a double fake, nothing but a mistranslation. Going back to pre-Christian times in Scandinavia, among the Norse peoples, a tannfé was a gift given to children when they lost their first tooth.

The Old Norse word tannfé, is made up of the two words tann, meaning ‘tooth’, and , which has the same root as the modern day Swedish , meaning animals that are kept for financial return, such as cattle. comes from the older or , meaning ‘property; wealth’. Often used to denote what was given to pay for something. In other words a ‘fee’.

So tandfe really means “tooth money” or a “tooth fee”. The confusion is of course with the French word fée or English ‘fay’.

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This tradition of giving gifts for teeth is so old it even appears in Norse mythology, more specifically in the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse narrative poems. There it is written that Álfheimr, home of the light elves and the god Frey (whose sister Freyja might be the reason why the fifth day of the week is called Friday), was gifted to the infant Frey as a tooth gift. 

Alfhęim Fręy

gǫ́fu í árdaga

tívar at tannféi.


Alvheim fick Frej

av de andra gudarna

i tandgåva arla i tiden.

As translated by Björn Collinder. Notice, arla, in Collinder’s translation, like the milk company, means ‘early’ or ‘ere’ and has the same root. This is also where ‘yearly’ comes from, but the word in Old Norse is árdaga, meaning ‘in days of yore’. Let us attempt a translation in English:

Alfheimr, Frey

was gifted in old days

by the Gods as a tooth fee.

This tradition itself is said to have come from the belief that children’s teeth offered protection or luck in battle, and that many Norse warriors wore them on necklaces.

Perhaps when your kids are old enough to not believe in the tooth fairy anymore, you can finally tell them the truth about this double fake fairy, and give them a piece of real mythology and history to replace it with.

Example sentences:

Mamma, tror du tandfen kommer om jag lägger min tand under kudden?

Mommy, do you think the tooth fairy will come if I put my tooth under the pillow?

Det finns ingen tandfe!

There is no tooth fairy!

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.