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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Villa Volvo Vovve: The Local publishes new book on life in Sweden

In an extract from The Local’s new book about the Swedish language and lifestyle, editor Catherine Edwards asks how much we can learn about a country from its language alone.

A woman sitting by a lake, holding a cup of warm beverage. It's autumn in Sweden.
There is more to Swedish life than fika and lagom. Photo: Alexander Hall/imagebank.sweden.se

Until recently, the Swedish language had had only a modest impact worldwide, with just a few of its words adopted elsewhere, most of them fairly unexciting: orienteering, ombudsman, smorgasbord. For many people overseas, their only interaction with Swedish was laughing at the labels in an Ikea store. When I moved to Stockholm in 2015, I didn’t know much more than hej.

But then a trend for Scandinavian culture swept the globe, boosted by surveys showing their populations to be the world’s happiest, most equal, or boasting the best quality of life. Two words in particular were catapulted to linguistic stardom: fika and lagom, roughly ‘coffee break’ and ‘just the right amount’. Magazine articles and books debate whether the words themselves give us an insight into some ‘Swedish secret’ of how to live. 

But there is much more to Swedish life than fika and lagom.

In 2018, we started our Word of the Day series to introduce our readers to the Swedish words that help you crack these cultural codes. We delved into a mixture of topical words that were making headlines or could help our readers understand the country they found themselves in.

One thing I’ve learned at The Local is that you can almost never translate the news word for word. It doesn’t work. A word that means something concrete to Swedes – whether it’s the name of a political party, national holiday, or a common custom – needs context. 

So what about untranslatable words? If you think about it long enough – and I absolutely have – you could argue that most words are untranslatable. Fika might have a slightly different definition from ‘coffee break’, but the exact meaning depends at least as much on who is talking as what language they are speaking.

Many concepts don’t translate perfectly between people even if they’re speaking the same language. I’ve not seen anyone argue that ‘coffee’ is untranslatable, yet go to a cafe in three different countries and ask for a coffee, and you’re almost guaranteed to be presented with three different drinks: black filter coffee in Sweden, an espresso in Italy, and so on. 

If you describe someone as ‘punctual’, you might be using a different definition than a Swede, even if punktlig is in the dictionary as a direct translation. Someone from India or China might laugh at the size of a settlement that is called a ‘city’ here in Sweden. The list goes on. We all make assumptions based on our personal context every day.

Words like kanelbullens dag (Cinnamon Bun Day), badkruka (bathing coward), and tvättstugelapp (passive-aggressive note left in the communal laundry room) may not have caught on worldwide, but they each help you get a little bit closer to understanding not only Sweden, Swedish and the Swedes but also what it is like being human, anywhere and everywhere.

In Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, we explore over 100 Swedish words, including how to use them, when to avoid them, and the history of how they came to be. You’ll learn about Sweden beyond the headlines, beyond the tourist guides, the good, the bad, and the bizarre. This book will help you if you’re travelling to Sweden, or even living there, to understand what’s going on around you. But it’s also a handbook for anyone who wants to embrace the Nordic way of life. Who knows, maybe you’ll even discover the elusive Scandinavian secrets to happiness along the way.

This article is adapted from the introduction to Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists. It is available to order: head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris – alternatively become a member of The Local and get a copy for free.

If you’re already a member of The Local and want to give the book + membership to a friend, buy our gift bundle here.

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SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

Swedish word of the day: tacofredag

Today’s word is a modern Swedish national tradition.

Swedish word of the day: tacofredag

Tacofredag simply means ‘Taco Friday’.

If you have been living in Sweden for a while you might be familiar with the concept of att mysa, ‘to get cozy’. If you are not, the number one mys-day is Friday, fredagsmys, or “Cozy Friday”, which we have previously covered. Fredagsmys has become somewhat of a modern national tradition, where the idea is to stay at home, watch a movie, have a chill and nice time together while eating fast food.

And the fast food of choice for fredagsmys is tacos, Tex-Mex style tacos, but with a Swedish twist. You might have seen the large taco section in your local supermarket and wondered. This is why it is so large.

Here’s the story behind it. Around 1990 Sweden was reemerging out of a financial crisis. Swedes were increasingly willing to spend again, and television advertising, which was illegal on cable based broadcast, was becoming a thing through satellite broadcasts from the UK. Somewhere around this time the idea of fredagsmys was born. To sit at home, eating easy to make food while watching television.  

Though crips company OLW was the major populariser of the phenomenon of fredagsmys through a series of popular adverts that started in 2009, the big winners of the new cultural phenomenon were the tex-mex producers Old El Paso and Santa Maria (which even changed its name from Nordfalks due to the success of its tex-mex products). 

Through in store demonstrations of how to assemble the tacos, and a series of advertising campaigns, tex-mex sales grew from 70 million to 1,2 billion SEK over 20 years from 1991-2011. In 2014 Santa Maria released a statement containing statistics from a survey which showed that 85 percent of Swedes eat Tex Mex regularly, and that 55 percent of them do it on Fridays. Though that survey was done on only 1000 people, it still gives an inkling of the popularity of the phenomenon.

So what are the essentially Swedish ingredients on tacofredag? Cucumber, pineapple, yoghurt sauces, canned corn and even peanuts. These are also things that you might find on Swedish pizzas such as the Africana or the Hawaii, or even the odd Kebab Pizza (another Swedish take on imported food). 

As you can see, tacofredag is a widely appreciated and, due to its twists, quintessentially Swedish modern tradition. Invite your friends over for tacofredag instead of Taco Tuesday, and don’t forget to include the Swedish ingredients. It will certainly be appreciated.

Example sentences:

Vi tänkte ha tacofredag till helgen, vill ni komma?

We’re having Taco Friday this weekend, you wanna come?

Åh, jag älskar tacofredag!

Oh, I love Taco Fridays!

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 US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.

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