7 Swedish Words to Import

When you’re a habitual user of more than one language you often want to use words from one when speaking another. You become aware how weird it is to not be able to say certain things easily and normally in some language when you can do so in others.

Since I’ve had children it’s become more of a pressing concern to me that Swedish has no word for “grandparent” (or “grandmother”/“grandfather”). You have to specify which grandparent you mean: mother’s mother, father’s mother, mother’s father or father’s father. You can go visit mother-parents or father-parents, or speak in general about clunky mother-and-father-parents. Do not attempt to refer to great-grandparents unless they’re pure mother-mother-mothers or father-father-fathers1.

I’ve also found it interesting that we have no direct translation for “to think”. How on Earth does that work? It’s like with grandparents: you have to specify whether you mean “think” as in “processing thoughts in your head” (“tänka”), or “having an opinion” (“tycka”).

But this isn’t about that, it’s about the reverse: Swedish words I sometimes want to use in English (for example on this blog). Oh and I’m not going to mention “lagom” or “fika”, like every other goddamn article on this theme does. Screw those dumb, overexposed words, thinking they’re sooo important… (if you are interested, here2 are links to 20 such articles, have at it).

I have some more interesting ones — some compound ones, which English is catastrophically bad at making3. There are benefits to compound words when it comes to creating concepts and making it easy to point to things. Yes, you can make two- or three word phrases but those are the second-class citizens of words. They lack identity, the mental and social solidity and saliency that comes with being an actual, bona fide word.

I thought of writing out pronounciations but instead I’ll just say (once and for all, I’m sure) how to pronounce Å, Ä and Ö. They have dual versions, short and long (the short is safer to use if unsure, as it sounds less weird to get it wrong that way):

Å is like the vowel sound in “box” or in “law”. For the latter, you can use the English sound but with slightly tighter lips and speak more in the very front of your mouth — but that’s överkurs (see below).

Ä has the vowel sounds of bed or mad.

Ö sounds like in fur when long, but also with tighter lips and in the front of your mouth. When short it’s closer to the unstressed last vowel in words like “system”, “fathom”, or “ulcer”.

Now here are my suggested imports.

1) Tolkningsföreträde

“Tolkning” means “interpretation”. “Företräde” is literally “before-step” but means “right of way” or, generally, the right to go first or before someone else. Having tolkningsföreträde means having the right to have your own interpretation of an event, situation or issue accepted over someone else’s. Trying to grab it for yourself or your crowd is a power move. I’m highly suspicious of it and spend a significant effort on this blog trying to destroy it by being in a narrow sense relativist4.

It should ~never be granted completely and unconditionally, especially not in advance or by default — e.g. “person/group/ideology X will have tolkningsföreträde regarding topic/event/issue Y”.

Of course it’s typically not a matter of explicit policy (even if it can be sometimes). It’s both a source and result of informal social power, and lots of public rhetoric aims at achieving it for your side (because, among other things, it helps you harvest political capital from events).

2) Ändamålsglidning

Depending on how literal you want to get, this means “purpose-slide” or “end-goal-slide”. It refers to the social dynamic where a law, system or institution is put into place with a specific justification and then becomes used for other purposes.

It can happen from the outside, like politicians using a law meant to combat X on Y instead, because “hey we got this tool we can use”. It can also happen “from the inside”, like where an organization gradually shifts its goals because of the motivations and incentives of people inside it. A temporary project might be over but we’ve got this organization now with jobs and respect and surely there are other, related things we can do and get paid/admired for? Any serious system- or institution building project needs to take a long, hard look at how to deal with ändamålsglidning.

Interestingly it’s one of the processes examined in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation which I recently re-read. The Foundation is established on the remote planet Terminus, ostensibly with the purpose of compiling a galactic encyclopedia, not being a threat to anyone. However, by exploiting the predictability of ändamålsglidning, it can be designed in such a way that the rest of the colony, supposedly only there to support the encyclopedists, naturally grows larger and more powerful over time. Eventually they seize control, and the Foundation assumes its true intended purpose.

3) Nidbild

Splice together “bild”, meaning image or picture, with “nid-”, an archaic word I had to look up that means mockery, accusation or insult, and you get nidbild. It means an unflattering and unfair description or rendition of something.

In English we have “hit job”/“hatchet job” and “straw man” but they’re more narrow in their use, a nidbild is the product of a hatchet job, and with more emotional and literary connotations than a straw man — an wantonly inaccurate representation meant to hurt, misrepresent and defame.

4) Tuggmotstånd

Literally “chew-resistance”,  and it refers to the texture of chewy foods. That’s not very interesting by itself but the word shines in its metaphorical, extended use where it means that something — like a dense text — has to be seriously processed and takes effort to digest. It’s the property completely opposite of being pandering, coddling or spoon-feeding, and my post The Importance of Being a Slog is largely about books with it and why they have it. It could’ve been called “The Importance of Tuggmotstånd”, and I very nearly used “sloginess” as a replacement before I decided it was a silly word.

5) Småpåvar

Means “little Popes” and is most often used in the plural. It refers to people who have some but not very much power, and in a limited context — like local politicians, homeowner association board members or middle managers — and think too highly of themselves because of it. They cause trouble for others by desperately holding onto their position and power, overusing it when they can, and acting disagreeably and obstructionist in general. “Microdictator” could be a decent translation, although lacking the casual quality of its counterpart.

6) Överkurs

“Over-course” — as it literally means — is a classic from school (or at least university, I can’t remember if it’s common earlier). It’s something that goes above and beyond what you need to know or be able to do. It’s just for the extra ambitious. “Read chapters 2-6, 7 and 8 are överkurs” or “you should know how to change a tire and check the oil, replacing the exhaust pipe is överkurs” or “learn how to say yes, no, hello and thank you in Chinese before your trip, but learning to speak fluently is överkurs”.

It’s a small thing but it does help having a single, simple word for it. You can use it as a less convoluted (and less memetically dead-on-arrival) way to express what in moral philosophy is called “supererogatory” — i.e. good, but more than what is required.

7) Föreställningsvärld

I find this final one really useful when discussing how people think of things, what they believe, and how they come to conclusions about what the world is like by consulting the simulation of reality they have in their head. Because that’s what it means: föreställningsvärld literally translates to “conception-world” — “conception” in the sense of “conceiving of something” — and means close to “the world as [person] sees it”.

It’s perfectly normal to say something like “in my föreställningsvärld people don’t go to university to learn things” or “in my föreställningsvärld most people change jobs about once a year” if that is what your general worldview causes you to believe.

It sounds a little unnecessary, perhaps, and could easily be replaced with just “I believe” or “in my opinion” or “my intuition is”, but I think it brings a lot of additional value. It’s not for subjective preferences, so it’s not the same as mere opinon. And it comes with the implication that the belief or expectation in question is the result of your system of empirical beliefs generating a prediction, and not just an isolated belief that you just absorbed and stored. “Intuition” is close, and is the sort of thing that your föreställningsvärld produces when prompted.

Furthermore, unlike beliefs, opinions or intuitions, there’s an awareness baked into “föreställningsvärld” that you’re only talking about the world as you see/imagine/conceive of it, and not necessarily how it really is. The notion of “headcanon”, referring to fictional worlds, has similar connotation of doing speculative mental work to make things fit together and make sense while being provisional and not meant as the final word. It’d sure be swell if we could expand its meaning .


  1. We spent last Christmas with my wife’s parents and her brother’s family, meaning that her parents were, at the same time, mother-mother and mother-father to my kids, and father-mother and father-father to their cousin. And yes, these terms are used in everyday conversation to refer to people all the time. We can’t deal with this any more. Send help. ↩︎
  2. For example here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. ↩︎
  3. English does have some compound words, like gaslight, meathead, or cryptocurrency but it’s for some reason rare. And unlike in Swedish or German it’s not something everyone feels free to just do at any time. ↩︎
  4. See for example here, here, and here. ↩︎

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15 thoughts on “7 Swedish Words to Import

  1. Thanks John for “7 Swedish words” which I absolutely agree we need to import.

    And thanks suspendedreason
    for “exaptation” for Ändamålsglidning—not perfect, but maybe useful?”

    My kid is developing a game with near enough a concept to exaptation.

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  2. Growing up with a Swedish grandma, I get you on that point. She’s technically my farmor and my oldest cousins mormor, and since they were older and started calling her that and we’re not in Sweden we all ended up calling her Mormor. Since I don’t use swedish words for any other grandparents it wasn’t a big deal though, and just something different I always loved about my family. But I totally get that having a more generic word would come in handy.

    For Småpåvar, I’ve often referred to people as having a Napoleon complex, which i guess is somewhat similar, but not as concise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh my wife’s family has the habit of putting both together and calling a grandparent e.g. farmor-mormor if both are relevant.

      AFAIK a Napoleon complex refers to being overly aggressive as compensation for being short, not being a petty tyrant.

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  3. In my cynical model, for most people their föreställningsvärlden has no place for any concept with the meaning “good, but more than what is required” — that would be incompatible with the law of Jante — and thus words someone else tries to bind there instead end up as synonyms of “excessive”, i.e. “more than what is required, therefore bad”. Separately, they are insufficiently bothered by things not fitting together or making sense to realize that they have multiple different types and/or versions per type, and thus would gladly treat as -en whatever they already have.

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    1. You really think so? I don’t think it’s that difficult, although I see the problems with having a range of acceptable-to-good-to-excessive behaviors since it encourages runaway moral arms races or implied judgment when your chosen level differs. I think it’s very important that we learn to live with that though, like any other interpersonal difference.

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      1. I began my comment with “in my cynical model” exactly to allow multiple disagreeing models to coexist.

        On the one hand, paying undivided attention to what the group expects, and doing exactly that, neither less nor more, is one straightforward way to demonstrate undivided loyalty to the group. If someone is doing something obviously different from the expected, clearly they have some loyalties elsewhere, be that another group or their own ideas of what they should do. We do observe people behaving in the implied ways. Conspicuously good students — specifically, those who care more about their teachers’ approval than about their peers’ approval — are called things like “striver” or “overachiever”.

        On the other hand, clearly the world is not all like that, we do observe that occasionally virtues are celebrated; even in the context of school, good students are sometimes admired/envied. The fact that almost everyone can function in today’s society, which is not a stone-age hunter-gatherer tribe, shows that almost everyone is a thinking person rather than a politicking hairless monkey.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Typo: “Having tolkningsföreträde means having the right to have your own interpretation of an event, situation or accepted over someone else’s.”

    guessing it should be “…event, situation or [other noun] accepted over…”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What do you think about these potential equivalents?

    Tolkningsföreträde => Standing (Talerätt) is a legal term that I would use figuratively in this sense though I don’t think it is commonly used this way.
    Ändamålsglidning. I’m pretty sure there is a word or phrase for this but I can’t come up with it.
    Småpåvar => Big fish in a small pond
    Överkurs => Overkill (this fits your examples perfectly imo)
    in my föreställningsvärld => From my point of view

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny and I wonder if it’s a personality quirk to be very picky and precise with meanings and connotations, but often when people suggest synonyms to me I react “those words aren’t the same at all!” and I feel like that this time too. Overkill is probably the best but its ‘vibe’ feels very different to me, more of “just way too much”.

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  6. “learn how to say yes, no, hello and thank you in Chinese before your trip, but learning to speak fluently is överkurs…”

    On the subject of words that don’t exist in some languages: I was surprised to discover that Chinese doesn’t quite have words for “yes” and “no”!

    The closes you can get to those two words are maybe 是 shì (“is”) or 对 duì (“correct”) for “yes” and 不 bù (“not”) for “no”, but more idiomatic is to respond with the verb that people used to ask you the question. I.e. if someone asks you “Do you want that?” you respond “want” or “not want”, if someone asks “Do you have this?” you respond “have” or “not have”, if someone asks “Do you like it?” you respond with “like” or “not like”, and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

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