Swedish word of the day: pålägg

Pålägg: A concept so integral to Swedish food culture that it has its own section in the supermarket. But what does it mean?

Swedish word of the day: pålägg
Whats your favourite pålägg? Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Swedish has a number of “untranslatable words” which have become trends abroad, such as lagom (not too little, not too much) and fika (a coffee break).

I’d like to propose pålägg as the next one. It’s not particuarly fancy, and will probably not spark any articles in fashion magazines, but it is an extremely Swedish (or, arguably, Scandinavian) concept.

So what does it mean? Well, literally, it translates as “put-on” (meaning “on” and lägg meaning “put” or “lie”), but it is the word used for the category of food eaten on top of bread.

Unlike in countries like for example the UK or Italy, where a sandwich or a tramezzino consist of at least two slices of bread with a filling, a Swedish smörgås or macka is usually an open slice of bread with some sort of pålägg. Many Swedes eat at least one macka a day at breakfast or as a snack (mellanmål – literally “between meal”), whether it’s a slice of cheese on white bread or hummus on wholegrain crispbread.

As a general rule, pålägg is something cold placed on a piece of bread or toast, which you should then be able to lift up and eat with your hands – so beans on toast (the British staple) or scrambled eggs are not considered pålägg. Cold, sliced boiled eggs are, however, pålägg, especially when eaten with Kalles kaviar (salted cod roe). One exception to this rule is Danish-style smörrebröd, which are usually eaten with cutlery as they are so piled high with pålägg that the bread underneath is completely hidden.

An äggsmörgås med kaviar, arguably the most Swedish pålägg available. Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT

One common translation of pålägg is “spread”, which is partly correct – it can be used to mean spreads such as peanut butter, liver paté or cream cheese. Another word for spreads is röra, which, confusingly, can also be used as a pålägg (but not all pålägg can be used as röror – I know, it’s complicated).

The word pålägg also encapsulates cold cuts such as salami or ham, as well as sliced cheese, smashed avocado and even tinned mackerel in tomato sauce.

If you want to treat yourself, you could try chokladpålägg such as Nutella, or even get your hands on some Danish pålægschokolade – often sold in Swedish supermarketsthin slices of milk or dark chocolate eaten on top of rye bread with tandsmør or “tooth butter”, a layer of butter so thick that you can see the markings left by your teeth in it once you take a bite.

The filling in a toastie (or grilled cheese sandwich, if you’re not British), is not pålägg, and neither are pizza toppings – most Swedes would refer to these as fyllning (“filling”), or in the case of pizza, pizzatopping.

Pålägg can also be used in a finance context, meaning “markup”. Markup is the difference between the wholesale price and resale price of a product, or the amount added to the total cost incurred by the producer of a good or service in order to cover the costs of doing business and create a profit.

In music, pålägg is the word for “layering” or “overdubbing”, a technique used by musicians to add extra recorded sounds to a previously recorded performance. 

We hope this article has made your food shopping a bit easier, or will help you understand the breakfast buffet offered in Swedish hotels a bit better next time you visit.

Example sentences:

Jag tror ägg och Kalles kaviar är det svenskaste smörgåspålägg som finns.

I think egg and Kalles caviar is the most Swedish bread topping you can find.

Man kan räkna ut pålägg i båda kronor och procent.

You can calculate markup both in kronor and in percent.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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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.