Readability tips, literacy news, and English writing advice

Four Swedish Words That English Really Needs

Swedish may not be one of the top contributors to the English language, but IKEA and smorgasbord (smörgåsbord) are evidence that the English-speaking world may be willing to adopt a few phrases from this quiet Scandinavian country that otherwise remains neutral and fairly anonymous on the world scene. Ombudsman is another word English has borrowed from Swedish, though I can't remember the last time I used it in conversation.

Here are four more words from Swedish that would make English a richer language:

Lagom (log-ohm).

Adjective. The closest we get in English is "just right" but it encapsulates the feeling of something being the perfect amount of whatever it should be. Remember Goldilocks? When the bed was neither too hard nor too soft, that was lagom. When the porridge was neither too hot nor too cold, it was lagom.

At a dinner party, when asked how much wine they'd like, an American might answer, "Not too much." But if we used the word lagom, we might be able to answer with a word that also implies that we would not like too little. Language follows culture, and Swedish culture values moderation and generally avoids extremes. Lagom reflects their value for things being neither too much nor too little. Lagom is always best.

Fika (fee-kah).

Noun/verb. The act of sharing a warm drink (usually coffee) and something small to eat together with others. Also, the food and drink being consumed in this way. Fika can be any time of day, but is especially common mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and in the evening. You can eat something sweet, like a cinnamon bun, or simple sandwiches, or even a piece of fruit. It isn't a meal, but in Sweden, fika is a way of life.

In the workplace, your whole department would take a coffee break together, sitting around tables in the designated fika room. Drinking coffee from a vending machine alone at your desk while working would be strange, anti-social behavior. Not surprisingly, it seems that these regular breaks improve productivity, creativity and collaboration. But fika isn't just for work. Meet a friend at a cafe for fika, or enjoy a simple fika with your family in the evening before bed.

A cup of coffee in the car during your morning commute is not fika. You won't find any drive-through cafes in Sweden.

Sambo (sahm-boo) Noun.

A significant other that you live with but aren't married to.

In English we have words for a girlfriend or boyfriend, a fiance, or a spouse. The language hasn't quite kept up with the culture to give us a word for a relationship that doesn't fit well into any of these categories. A "boyfriend" feels more like a high school relationship than adults who have made a commitment to each other, but if you're not engaged or married, the others don't fit either. Sambo is gender neutral and adult. The relationship is committed enough to be living together, but no rings have been exchanged and nothing is legally binding. As culture evolves, whatever your opinion of its evolution, having a single word to describe this relationship would be helpful.

Fredagsmys (fray-dahs-mees)

Noun. Spending a cozy Friday night at home with your family, significant other, or just a few close friends.

Friday night is often a party night, since most people don't have to get up early for work on Saturdays. But let's be honest. After a week full of work and school and other commitments that have kept you busy all week long, sometimes the last thing you want to do is go anywhere. By Friday night, everyone just needs a break. Grab a bag of chips and your sweatpants and settle in to your sofa with the remote control. Dim the lights and light a candle. Throw blankets recommended, extra pillows optional. Unwind properly at the end of a crazy week with fredagsmys.