Swedish word of the day: surströmming

In Sweden, there are several words for herring.

Swedish word of the day: surströmming
Your Swedish challenge of the day. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Surströmming is the word for ‘fermented herring’, and it’s been a part of traditional (and smelly) Swedish cuisine for centuries. One of the most putrid-smelling foods in the world, eating this delicacy is one of the final frontiers for proving you’ve adapted to the Swedish palate.

It’s a controversial food to say the least, with several airlines banning the carriage of surströmming, and viral challenges where people film their first attempt eating the fish.

The sur means ‘sour’ and relates to the acidic taste. To prepare surströmming, fish caught at the start of the season are preserved with salt to stop them rotting.

The process takes about six months, so the first date on which you can eat surströmming is known as the surströmmingspremiär, traditionally the third Thursday in August. In 2021, that’s August 19th so if you’re reading this on Thursday, happy first day of fermented herring season! 

There are guidelines on how best to eat the dish, the most important of which is to try it outdoors due to the odour. The traditional way to serve it is with onion, sour cream, bread, potatoes and a glass of snaps – not straight out of the can.

Most languages find one word for ‘herring’ is sufficient, but in Sweden there’s a difference between herring caught south of the Kalmar Strait, which are sill, and those caught in the Baltic north of Kalmar, which are strömming.

Is there any point in making this difference?

It’s based on a royal request from the 16th century which established the boundary, but whether the fish are actually different is up for debate. Generally, sill are larger and fattier than strömming, and some research suggests there are slight genetic differences, despite being part of the same species and very closely related.


Jag äter det mesta, till och med surströmming

I eat most things, even fermented herring

För många i Sverige är det en tradition att äta surströmming varje sommar

For many people in Sweden it’s a tradition to eat fermented herring every summer

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Swedish word of the day: järn

Järn is the Swedish word for iron, but it's also used in a number of compound words.

Swedish word of the day: järn

It originates from the Old Swedish word iærn, which in turn comes from Old Norse járn, which has its roots in a Proto-Germanic word, the same word English iron and German Eisen come from.

It can be used to refer to the metal and chemical element iron, as well as golf irons, but is also commonly used in compound words referring to some sort of tool or appliance made of metal, just like in English.

Some examples of these are an iron used to iron clothes, which is a strykjärn, and a waffle iron (våffeljärn). You’ll also see it in the Swedish word for cast iron, gjutjärn.

A strong alcoholic drink can be described as a järn, and it can also colloquially refer to a prisoner sitting in shackles.

You might also have noticed it in the Swedish word for railway, järnväg, which literally translates to “iron road”. Swedish railway company SJ’s name comes from Statens Järnvägar, the government agency which was until 2001 responsible for operating Sweden’s state-owned railways.

If you’re particularly interested in Swedish railways, you can even visit one of Sweden’s many järnvägsmuseer or railway museums. The national järnvägsmuseet is in Gävle, but it is closed for refurbishment until spring 2024.

There are also a number of Swedish idioms which use the word järn, some of which also exist in English.

Someone who is trying to do too many things at once might be described as having många järn i elden (many irons in the fire), while you might be told to smida medan järnet är varmt (strike while the iron is hot) if you need to make quick use of an opportunity.

Example sentences:

Han hade redan ett par järn innanför västen innan han kom till julbordet.

He’d already had a few stiff drinks before he came to the Christmas meal.

Sveriges järnvägsnät sträcker över hela det svenska fastlandet.

Sweden’s railway network stretches across the entire Swedish mainland.

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