Saturday, July 27

A Swedish Scrapbook

A Swedish Scrapbook

What does Sweden mean to you? Sex, sin and saunas? Social Democracy, sky-high taxes and safety matches? Strindberg, sport, the smorgasbord (or smörgåsbord, to the pedantic and/or initiated)? Whatever the connotations, the chances are that much of it will begin with ‘s’. Hence my idea of writing about the Soul of Sweden -- an S-ay about this country . . . its S-ence, you might say (though you probably wouldn’t, not being such a sucker for alliteration and bad puns as I am).

I thought of trying to write about Scandinavia in general. But it’s no good: Sweden’s the only country I really know firsthand, so Sweden it must be. I hope the subject isn’t too limited for your taste; that this arouses your interest; and that my appreciation (not adulation) of this part of the world comes across, in and between the lines. After all, I’m still here!

Perhaps this ‘glossary’ will go some way towards explaining why I settled here in the first place (in 1980), and shall probably stay here for quite a few more years. Sometimes, in the autumn and winter, the urge to emigrate to somewhere warmer (and, well, less Swedish) grows strong. But in the spring and summer, basically all I want is to stay put and cultivate my ‘wild-strawberry place’ in this suburb my elder son once called ‘paradise’. In the ‘summer half-year’, and especially ‘between the bird-cherry and the lilac’, Sweden’s the best place I know. Come and see -- on- or offline -- for yourselves (and test your prejudices against reality)!

The Saami (PC for ‘Lapps’) are the aboriginal, semi-nomadic inhabitants of the Nordic region. The oldest surviving ethnic group in the region, and probably also in Europe, there is genetic evidence of their Asian, as well as European, ancestry.
An estimated 50,000–65,000 Saami live in northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula, with 17,000–20,000 inhabiting Swedish Sápmi (Lapland). The oldest archaeological sites (mostly pit traps), discovered along the coast of the Arctic Ocean in northern Norway, are about 10,000 years old. The Saami are believed to have migrated north after the end of the last Ice Age, some 9,000 years ago. Over the centuries, they have been pushed further north (and discriminated against).
About 10% still earn their living by reindeer herding. Contrary to popular myth, this isn’t their archetypal way of life; they were nomadic hunter-gatherers long before they became herders of semi-domesticated reindeer.
To learn more, see

From the fact that the country has been at peace since 1812 to the invention of the safety match (see, and from cradle-to-grave social security ( to strict laws on the wearing of seatbelts, drinking & driving, etc, security and safety are keynotes of Swedish politics, history, society and life.
There are ombudsmen (officials appointed by the government to protect the people against the government; a peculiarly Swedish invention) who oversee the application of laws, with particular attention to abuses of authority. There are laws that make Swedish government the most open in the world in terms of public access to official documents. These both help to make people secure from abuse of state power. (The Swedish state is in fact remarkably small by international standards; it is the relatively swollen local authorities that make the Swedish public sector look so formidable in comparative statistics.)
Sweden has one of the world’s highest life expectancies, and at 3.47 per 1,000 live births (2001 est., its infant-mortality rate is among the lowest in the world. Most school-age children own and use several helmets: one for skiing and tobogganing, one for skating, one for cycling, etc. Safety is something of a national obsession.
Sweden was the first country worldwide to pass a law (in 1979) banning all forms of corporal punishment of children, i.e. giving them legal protection from parental assault. Since then, research has shown a major change in attitudes towards physical means of punishment and a real decline in its actual use as a form of discipline. So children -- the world’s worst-treated minority, and the most silent -- are relatively safe in Sweden.

This slippery, smarmy, ever-smiling, thickly-mascara’d-eyelash-batting and (to me) intensely irritating former Deputy Prime Minister (1994–95) is loved by some and loathed by many others (you know one). Notoriously bad at paying bills, tax (despite her famous statement that paying tax is fun: 'Det är häftigt att betala skatter’ -- ha ha!) and parking fines, she has repeatedly used her ex officio credit card to cover private expenses. In autumn 1995, after various revelations, she was forced to resign from the Cabinet and withdraw her candidacy for the post of prime minister. Since 1998 she has been back in the Cabinet (as Minister of Industry, Employment and Communications). Reports of her financial shenanigans continue -- even recently, after her resignation and reinstatement. One wonders why she is so incapable of learning a lesson and keeping promises. From her bouncing-back act, one can only conclude that the Swedes are a remarkably (lamentably) forgiving and/or forgetful lot. The Sahlin case is interesting as an example of cronyism, anti-intellectualism and the importance of personality in the Swedish establishment.
(Swedish-speaking readers can check out the correspondence [in Swedish] at In January 2002, 70% of the respondents among Örnsköldsviks Allehanda’s readers thought she should step down as minister. One who deemed that unnecessary opined that 'after all, she’s quite sexy in red’!)

Sailing is by far the best, indeed the only, way to explore the skerries (archipelago: the Stockholm archipelago comprises some 24,000 islands) properly. It is so popular as to be almost sacrosanct. To me, it has fine moments (the finest being when you disembark on and explore a new island) but can be torture on cold, windy days, not to mention in the rain (hail, sleet, snow). Devotees of the sport pay a fortune to keep their craft on dry land for most of the year. In the spring, they spend many hours scraping, waxing, polishing, and repairing the winter’s ravages. And many risk their lives by going out to sea and wending their way among the skerries while, and after, drinking to excess. This is, of course, against the law; but there are no spot checks, and the coast guard are not authorised to stop and breathalyse people merely on suspicion that they are under the influence. My elder son and I sailed a good bit in 1979–82, but were never bitten by the bug. For sheer tedium, glancing back and forth between horizon, sails and sea chart beats all other pursuits I’ve experienced. The pix at say it all.

A staple of the Scandinavian diet, it can be caught in central Stockholm -- or so the tourist brochures say. The basis for many a memorable meal at home, at friends’ and in the -- sadly now defunct -- Glada Laxen (‘Happy Salmon’) restaurant in Gallerian.

Swedish colloquialism for ‘lifemate’, ‘domestic partner’, ‘cohabitee’ (as opposed to ‘cohabitant’, who is merely ‘one who dwells together with another or others’, OED), ‘common-law wife/husband/spouse’, ‘live-in boy-/girlfriend’, ‘paramour’, someone who lives with you ‘in quasi-marital circumstances’ (i äktenskapsliknande förhållanden) or whatever you care to call it. More than half of the babies born in Sweden are born to unmarried cohabitees, who since the passing of Sambolagen, the Cohabitees (Joint Homes) Act (1987:232), have enjoyed legal and financial rights on a par with married people unless they opt out. Since the Homosexual Cohabitees Act (1987:813), gay couples have been able to register their partnership as, to nearly all intents and purposes, equivalent to marriage.

See SWEDISH LANGUAGE. The word sammansättningar -- compounds -- is an example of what it refers to. Other examples: utrustningsrekommendationer till långfärdsskridskoåkare (‘equipment recommendations for tour skaters’). Sometimes confusing for the Swedish-language learner, but a cinch once you get used to them. The language is a real free-for-all in this respect: anyone, any time, can make one up.
Ingmarie Mellenius of the Department of Linguistics at Lund University writes (in her Working Paper 45, 1996, pp. 133–149) of noun-verb compounding that
'in Swedish, English and other Germanic languages the great majority of actual compounds, and the majority of new coinages, are of the Noun-Noun type -- in the case of synthetic compounds, i.e. compounds with a deverbal* noun as head, on the other hand, the modifying element has been described as fulfilling an argument function, or as having a thematic role in relation to the verbal head, and the meaning of the compound is considered to be much more precise, and not as open to different interpretations. (‘Babysit’, ‘machine-wash’, ‘spoon-feed’ and ‘proofread’ are English examples.)
In Old Swedish, Åke Åkermalm found e.g. the verbs (1) kors+fästa (cross+attach, i.e. ‘crucify’), (2) pant+sätta (pawn+put, i.e. ‘pawn’) and (3) våld+ta (violence+take, i.e. ‘rape’).
In the early 20th century, the rate of production of novel noun-verb compounds accelerated rapidly. Åkermalm, writing in 1954, held the opinion that noun-verb compounding had grown steadily in popularity since 1900, and that this increase was due to the contemporary growth of daily press. In 1955, Åkermalm offered an interesting historical survey of the notion that noun-verb compounds should be impossible in the Germanic languages. This idea dated back to Grimm (1826), and was based on scanty and misconstrued data.
According to Åkermalm, many, indeed most, N–V compounds are derivations or back-formations from already existing synthetic compounds. Thus, for example, (1) sabel+hugga (sabre+stab, i.e. ‘to stab with a sabre’, from sabel+hugg (‘a stab with a sabre’); and (2) brand+försäkra (fire+insure, i.e. ‘insure against fire’), from brand+försäkring ‘fire insurance’.
However, there are also N–V compounds that are completely novel. Åkermalm found that these occurred to a higher extent, relatively speaking, in headlines, presumably because the need for compressing the language is felt more urgently here, and in ‘causeries’, where the authors try to use an inventive, personal language.
Blåberg (1988) gave an account of around 4,000 compounds that he excerpted from Swedish newspaper text. This corpus consisted of every compound found in section one of one issue of a national daily paper, and one issue of a business weekly. Only 63 of those compounds were of the N–V type.
Mellenius concludes that there seem to be two principal reasons for the creation of N–V compounds. The first is an ambition not to split the unity of modifier and head in deverbal* nominal compounds, thus favouring the creation of N–V compounds on the basis of existing words. The second reason is that N-V compounds succeed in adding a semantic dimension to the verb that would be very clumsy to convey in any other way.
(* Derived from a verb.)

A fourth-century Sicilian saint adopted in Sweden (and Norway) as a symbol of light (‘. . . on our darkest night / Comes with her shining light’) and commemorated on 13 December. On that day, the eldest daughter in the family traditionally gets up early and prepares a special breakfast. Clad in a long white dress with a red sash, bearing a wreath of candles on her head and leading the other children in the family, she takes the food on a tray to her parents. See, and for other Christmas traditions as well.

A Finnish invention, popular in Sweden too. Steamy, sweaty and, to my mind, not a bit sexy. However, the Swedish variety of sauna has clean, healthy and very innocent connotations -- far from the sleazy associations it has acquired elsewhere. (See also ‘Swedish massage’.) Families and friends do it together, especially at the sommarstuga (summer cottage or cabin) after a dip in the lake. Nudity is more or less de rigueur on such occasions. The Swedes profess to be not in the slightest ‘bewitched, bothered and bewildered’* by the idea of stripping off with a well-endowed naked member of the opposite sex (or even a flabby, sagging and less conventionally aesthetic one, for that matter) in close proximity. But if you ask me, this Swedish shibboleth is largely a matter of pretence and living up to convention.
(* ‘I'll sing to him / Each spring to him / And worship the trousers that cling to him / Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.’ From Pal Joey, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, music by Richard Rodgers.)

‘Spotty sausage’ (prickig korv) should be particularly avoided. (I haven’t investigated the contents, and dread to think what they are.) One Swedish song says about all you say about it: (My translation)
En prickig korv, en prickig korv A spotty sausage, a spotty sausage
Det är en korv med prickar på; That’s a sausage with spots on;
Och är där inga prickar på And if there aren’t any spots on it
Så är det ingen prickig korv It isn’t a spotty sausage.
En prickig korv, en prickig korv A spotty sausage, a spotty sausage
Det är en korv med prickar på. That’s a sausage with spots on.
The term also features in children’s playground games. ‘Julia’ writes on her home page: Vi har gungor på skolan. Där leker vi en lek som heter Prickig korv. Man gungar och sedan hoppar man av när den som står säger prickig korv. (‘We’ve got swings at school. There we play a game called “Spotty Sausage”. You swing and then you jump off when the person standing says “Spotty Sausage”.)
The usual Swedish sausage (a kind of tasteless frankfurter or wiener) is low on meat and high on water, starch and all kinds of extraneous ingredients (law-abidingly recorded in detail, Swedish-style, on the packaging).
The best sausages in Sweden are, in fact, Polish.

Distilled from rye. ‘Schnapps ditties’ (snapsvisor) or drinking songs are a Swedish art form and custom that must be heard and seen to be believed. The first glass of schnapps is traditionally filled to the brim (and is therefore known as ‘the whole’), while the second is only half-filled (and is called ‘the half). To this day, Swedes have an attitude towards alcohol that is a strange blend of surreptitious appreciation and reverence with guilt. (Alcohol may be said to play a part in Swedish humour roughly equivalent to the subject of sex in British humour.)

Swedish schools give children a ‘soft start’ at the age of six or seven. Generally, they apply a ‘laid-back’ approach throughout (so laid-back as to be virtually supine, it sometimes seems). Children at both pre-school and school are so free as to give the impression of running wild, unsupervised, much of the time -- and, unfortunately, so free as to be very often stultifyingly underoccupied: in a word, bored.
Though child care subsidised by the local authority is available to all children from the age of two, little is done to teach children to read in the ensuing four years. In other countries, educators have found that playful interaction between adult and child with written words and phrases can do wonders with children as young as two. But the scope for early reading for ordinary monolingual kids -- let alone among immigrants or to promote bilingualism among native Swedish-speakers, or to facilitate the development of linguistically challenged children -- is entirely neglected in mainstream Swedish day nurseries and schools, as far as I can see. Most six-year-olds and even seven-year-olds remain illiterate.
Such textbooks as exist -- even those for teenagers -- are at a low level, rife with inaccuracies and of such generality (so ‘potted’) as to be virtually useless (with e.g. a major world religion or war covered in a single paragraph). Little formal teaching (or testing) take place until the teenage years, and the tests that are given are mainly of the multiple-choice type (with only three choices). Swedish children have very limited general knowledge.
In my experience (and that of many other immigrants to this country), many adults are shockingly ignorant as well. A fairly high-powered employee at Ericsson, for instance, once looked blankly at me when I mentioned the 'special relationship’ between Britain and America. She had no idea why such a thing might exist. She had no conception of why we speak the same language; for some reason, she had never sought an explanation for that. She did not know that Britain had ever had any colonies in the New World. As for the Boston Tea Party, the War and Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers and all that, it was all entirely unmapped territory for her.
It is quite possible to leave Swedish elementary school at 15 or 16, after the nine years’ compulsory schooling, without ever learning how to write an essay, for example. (You can’t fail to learn how to change a plug, make a stool or use a condom, on the other hand.) In their mid-teens, pupils start learning in earnest -- and catching up with their peers in other countries. The standard of higher education in Sweden appears quite normal by international standards. And at research level standards are, I believe, higher than average -- despite the brain drain.

Early in 2002 Caroline Bengtsson, a young Swedish woman, was convinced she’d found part of a severed finger in a bowl of prawns. The object was reported to have been among a kilo of frozen prawns bought from a supermarket. Food producer Royal Greenland promised to investigate.
The pregnant 19-year-old was sick after scooping up the object in a handful of prawns. Aftonbladet, the evening paper, reported that the police took it to a hospital in Kristianstad to have it examined. Ingemar Griftberg, the pathologist, said: ‘It was not a finger, but a sea anemone. It didn't even have a skeleton, but with a bit of imagination . . .’ He informed the reporter that sea anemones live on rocks deep in the sea off the Swedish coast.
Caroline was quoted as saying: ‘I thought I was going to die of nausea. It was disgusting just to hold it in my hand.’

In Sweden, the seasons rule our lives. Topping my list of the best this country has to offer would be sommarhalvåret (‘the summer half-year’). It starts slowly in March, with sparse signs of spring (vårtecken); see SIPPOR. Spring itself rapidly gives way to the glorious summer. The splendour of autumn foliage takes over in September (which is often still quite warm here in Svealand). Winter? Well, it has its compensations: see SKIING, for instance.

Not a school or college term, but the Swedish for ‘holiday’ or ‘vacation’. Most Swedish employees get five weeks’ paid semester. If you want to visit Sweden on business, July is not the best choice.

A big soft bun, filled with almond paste, topped with whipped cream and dusted with icing sugar. Voilà -- a cholesterol bomb for Lent!

This means ‘last time’, and a good Swede will always thank a host(ess) for the last meal (s)he provided, by saying ‘Tack för senast’ even if it was several weeks, or even months, before.

Means ‘six’ as well as ‘sex’ in Swedish. Hence the Volvo sticker that went ‘I denna bil är det plats för sex’ (‘This car has room for six/sex’).
Once, for my birthday, I was given a collection of six bottles of scent by my colleagues at the Swedish Trade Council. In my speech of thanks, I managed (unintentionally) to say that I hadn’t had a bottle of scent, let alone sex (six), for a long time.
An elderly English Conservative politician once asked me, ‘The Swedes are quite immoral, aren’t they?’ But no, I believe this is a myth. After 22 years here I can give it to you on good authority: they are no more interested in sex than other nationalities, and Swedish men in particular are often so shy and reticent that it often seems to be the last thing on their minds. (See also SAUNA and SWEDISH MASSAGE.)

This word has nothing to do with sex, in fact. It means a party that, in theory, starts at six o’clock in the evening and should carry on until at least six in the morning. That’s not, of course, to say ‘no sex please, we’re Swedish’. As elsewhere in the world, stag parties (svensexor; a sven is a male virgin) involve being let loose (släppa loss) in more ways than one; but a typical Swede on the loose drinks heavily, rather than indulging in debauchery.

A personal favourite among the 100,000 or so Swedish lakes: I have both swum in it (in the summer) and walked on it (in the winter). Check out; the sunset is charming, the Swenglish (sample: ‘Unaffected by the authorities the inhabitants became self-confident, strong and outright, therefore, when Gustav Vasa and other kings needed help, they turned to the Dalecarlian men’) perhaps less so.

Swedish design has always followed the principle expressed by Antoine Saint-Exupéry (best known as the author of The Little Prince): ‘You know you've achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.’

I made several serendipitous discoveries on moving to Sweden in 1980. One was that Swedes enthusiastically break into song at the slightest provocation on private occasions -- at dinner parties, on picnics in forests and meadows and, of course, in the shower (where they mostly ablute, since they consider having a bath unhygienic). It’s a charming habit, and one I emulate whenever I get the chance (as my friends and relatives know, I’m always ready to stun the assembled company with my Helmut Lotti impersonation or shock teenagers by crooning some hit from long before they were born, to prove that the Sixties were best). See SCHNAPPS.
Choral singing is immensely popular in Sweden, and the one day each year when every choir in the country lets it rip is Walpurgis Night (30 April). Bonfires are lit and the spring is lustily sung in.

The sippor (vitsippa, the white wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, and blåsippa, the blue liverleaf or hepatica, Hepatica nobilis) are my favourite flowers. The blue one comes first, heralding the spring (I spotted the first one this year on 25 March). The white one follows in April and May, in profusion. In places it carpets the forest with its sweetly simple, star-like blooms. The flowers are open in the daytime only; in the evening they close and bend humbly earthwards. The number of petals varies from six to nine, and this variation intrigues me.

Formal, festive dinner at a university -- a key part of Swedish student life (which is largely derived from German tradition). A spex (students’ revue with drag, humorous sketches, songs, etc) is often provided for entertainment.

A winter sport that’s even more popular than skiing. Nearly all six-year-olds can do it. Variants include ice-skate sailing and tour skating (see I once met a man who boasted of skating all the way from Stockholm to Uppsala and back.

The word skatt means both ‘tax’ and ‘treasure’. So konstskatter could be either ‘art treasures’ or ‘taxes on art’, Skattehuset could be ‘the Treasure House’ as well as ‘the Tax Building’, and ‘min lilla skatt’ could be not only ‘my little treasure’ but ‘my little tax’.
But taxes are a serious business. Skattefridagen falls in mid-August; by way of comparison, Americans celebrated their Tax Freedom Day on 27 April this year (source: and the British had theirs on 5 June ( Taxes on income and wealth are higher in Scandinavia than anywhere else in the world. According to Eurostat Yearbook 2002 (see the Eurostat web site at, ‘Public revenue accounted for 46.2% of GDP in the EU in 2000. The figure ranged from 36.5% in Ireland to 62.5% in Sweden.’
See for the Swedish National Tax Board Annual Report 2000. As the Director-General points out, for successful tax and debt collection ‘the great majority of people must be prepared to pay their fair share, and have confidence in the way the authorities work’. As long as this remains true, Swedes will accept that most of their earnings go on tax.

In the ‘summer half-year’, serious Nordic skiers go rollerskiing (see Andrew Gardner’s article at There is no way of braking. (Next time I see a rollerskier on the road, instead of driving past, I’m going to stop and ask how it’s done.)

Given the fact that 51–54% of Sweden (estimates vary) is covered with forests, their vast importance in Swedish culture is hardly surprising. Or rather, not ‘forests’ but ‘the forest’ -- a single, contiguous entity. The home of trolls, elves and many other fabulous and mythical creatures, it exerts a powerful influence on the Swedish language and soul. I first heard about ‘the forest’ when I began teaching English to Swedes in London, in 1977. Among their hobbies, ‘springing in the forest’ -- as so many called springa i skogen (see SWENGLISH) -- seemed to be the No. 1 favourite.

(Pronounced ‘skawl’.) Conventions at formal dinner parties include rules about how high to raise your glass (I forget which shirt button it should be) and how to meet everyone else’s eyes, in order, before replacing the glass on the table. Not easy for a foreigner to master, let alone assimilate into one’s sense of what is right and proper (and it feels so absurd going through the motions)!

The table headed ‘Percentage of the population smoking daily in 1999’ in Eurostat Yearbook 2002 shows that fewer Swedes smoke than any other EU nationals: 22.2% of men and women aged over 15 (the Greeks generally smoke most: 44.9%). Figures for the 15–24 age group show an even larger range, from 21.0% in Sweden to an astonishing 53.1% in France. However, snuff-taking is a major national vice (see ‘SNOOSE’).

One of my favourite Swedish words; literally, it means ‘wild-strawberry place’. It can mean anywhere special, attractive or important to you personally. It can be rural or urban, natural or man-made, real or virtual. Mine is my own garden. Surrounded as it is by uninhabited, forested land on three sides, it feels bigger than half an acre. In the house (which is like a glorified log cabin), you see trees from every window.
The garden was my reason for buying the house (I decided to bid for it even before I’d seen inside). Roe deer come and go, and sometimes squirrels; and the birds provide a loud chorus not only at dawn, but for several hours after that. You feel as if you’re in a clearing in the forest, but thanks to the previous owners it has mature rhododendron, lilac and syringa bushes, many mature trees (huge birches, spruces and pines, but also a maple and an elder -- we pick the berries), a front and back lawn (with enough space to play croquet or badminton), flowerbeds with some of my favourite perennials (peonies, bleeding heart, lupins, irises), an orchard (apple, cherry, plum and pear trees), raspberry and redcurrant bushes, a patch of forest and a slope that’s good for tobogganing (where bilberries grow in the summer), a home-made patio, a guest cabin, an outhouse and various other facilities. Counting the wild strawberries (yes!) and the rhubarb, then, there are ten different kinds of fruit we can pick and eat. There’s also a big compost heap (our pride!) and a wide variety of wild flowers -- and weeds, needless to say. It’s endlessly varied. Even if I live here for the rest of my life, I’ll never know every square foot of it and it will never cease to give me almost daily surprises.
What is your smultronställe -- or, if you have more than one, what are they?
Incidentally, Ingmar Bergman’s film Smultronstället was voted one of the 10 best films of all time in the Sight & Sound International Critics Poll of 1972; it also won a Danish Academy Award, an Ibsen Statuette, an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay; the Berlin Film Festival Grand Prize; and the Venice Film Festival Critics’ Prize Award. It follows an elderly doctor’s journey through a compelling dream and memory landscape as he travels to receive an honorary degree. Haunting flashbacks and incidents along the way force him to confront his life and failings.

Literally ‘sandwich table’, but originally (in the 18th century) it was known as the ‘schnapps table’ (brännvinsbord). It was imported by the Swedish upper class, and came from the Russian custom of starting a meal with hors d’oeuvres washed down with vodka.
Swedish cookery is not just the ‘sandwich table’. Nor are Swedish chefs a joke, as assiduous viewers of children’s TV shows might think. They walk off with many a gastronomic award these days, and plenty of Swedish restaurants are listed in Michelin. See ‘Swedish cooking’.

‘In the census of 1900 the number of Swedish born citizens in Chicago exceeded the population of Gothenburg. In other words, Chicago was the second city of Sweden!
‘There were also great Swedish housing areas in Rockford, Worcester, Minneapolis and Jamestown.
‘The main street of a Swede Town was often called "Snoose Boulevard" since the Swedes were famous for their snuff.’
The snuff-taking tradition persists. The Swedes may not smoke on a large scale (see SMOKING), but a lot of them -- even the young -- take snuff.

The Social Democratic Party has been in power for 61 of the last 70 years. ’Nuff said.

See for a balanced view of the Swedish personnummer (which may also be translated as ‘national registration number’ or ‘civic registration number’; it is used in many different contexts in Sweden). Some people may see it as a sinister portent of state encroachment on private liberties; I don’t. It’s just part of the honourably intended and, on the whole, fairly effective Swedish way. And ID cards are a convenient way of identifying ourselves at banks, post offices and shops.

For details of the Swedish system, national action plans, etc, you could download the pdf files at (mostly translated by me).

See or for the location of Sollentuna, the small suburban town (pop. 58,000) NNW of Stockholm where my family and I live.

Just like singing, a surprising amount of this goes on at private dinner parties. Male guests must be careful where they sit in relation to the hostess if they don’t wish to be called upon to make a speech eulogising the food, wine, guests, hostess, host, furniture, or whatever. Women are never called upon to gush in this way -- but there is nothing to stop us, of course, if the spirit moves!

A Eurostat publication entitled Consumers in Europe -- Facts and Figures (see, December 2001, contains some interesting facts. For example:
-- the Swedish share of the household budget spent on recreation and culture is the highest in Europe (14.6%, the lowest being 3.7% in Portugal and 4.5% in Greece)
-- mineral water costs five times as much in Sweden as in Spain
-- Sweden had the highest household DVD penetration rate (7.8%), the lowest being Greece with 0.7%
-- Swedes had (in 1999) the second-highest (after the Finns) rate of readership of daily newspapers: 89% of men and 88% of women (only 32.6% of men and 30.4% of women in the UK read a daily in 1999; Greece was lowest, with 22.5% and 17.2% respectively).

Swedish sprats are spiced and pickled to a tasty turn, and best consumed with plenty of butter, cream, onions and potatoes in the baked dish known as ‘Jansson’s Temptation’ (Janssons frestelse). The Swedes call them ansjovis, but they are nothing like the Atlantic and Mediterranean anchovy (sardell in Swedish). If you fail to distinguish between false friends like this, you’ll find yourself talking SWENGLISH (see entry).

Alice Tegnér’s poem Årstiderna (‘The Seasons’), which she also set to music, puts it like this:
Om våren, om våren, då är det allra bäst,
då har vi så roligt och leka allra mest.
Då plocka vi gullvivor och sippor, vita, blå,
och så vi svänga om och runt i ringen gå.
My somewhat more prolix translation (seven feet instead of four -- if you’re charitable, you could call it ‘translational poetic licence’; I tried shorter lines, but was determined to get ‘anemones’ in, and it just wouldn’t scan):
The spring, the joyous tender spring, is when we have most fun.
We laugh and play our cares away until the day is done;
Pick yellow cowslips, blue and white anemones; and sing,
And dance, and skip and caper round the maypole in a ring.
(Yes, they really do that. And pretend to be frogs. Adults too.)

A respectable, and common, excuse not to work. If a public holiday falls on a Wednesday, the Thursday and Friday may be ‘squeeze days’ (bridge days, klämdagar); if it falls on a Tuesday, the Monday is usually one. Why work on those days? So many Swedes don’t. See

The Stockholm City Hall, where the Nobel banquet and ball are held on 10 December every year, after the King has awarded the Nobel Prizes for Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Philosophy and Literature.

Performing them is a pastime dear to the Swedish heart. And the never-ending supply of them, which their authors wish to spread beyond Sweden’s borders, keep us translators busy. So who’s complaining?

One of the world’s most northerly capitals, located just south of 60°N. Two-thirds of the way from the Equator to the North Pole, this line of latitude runs between the Shetlands and the Orkneys, across the Hudson Bay and just south of Anchorage, Alaska; through the neck of Kamchatka and right across Central Siberia to St. Petersburg. Yet the climate is far from extreme: average temperatures are –2.8°C in January and +17.2°C in July. The number of daylight hours varies, in Stockholm, from six just before Christmas to 18 at Midsummer. You have to go north of the Arctic Circle to see the Midnight Sun. Still, in Stockholm during the short Midsummer Night and for a few weeks before and afterwards, it never really gets dark. (See Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night to get in the mood.) We all go a bit mad then. Talking about mad . . .

STRINDBERG (1849–1912)
After the Swedish premiere of The Father in 1888, the reviewers quoted Hamlet: ‘O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!’ After the Danes banned Miss Julie, which was to have had its world premiere in Copenhagen, the Swedish publisher refused to print the drama and it was banned in Sweden as well. When its premiere finally took place in 1905, the critics had already dismissed it as a ‘rubbish dump’ and ‘one big mistake’, written in ‘a language that is scarcely used anywhere but in dens of intoxication and iniquity’. As for The Dance of Death (written in 1900), its Swedish premiere had to wait until 1909 -- and then took place not on one of Stockholm's established stages but at the small Intima (‘Intimate’) Theatre founded by Strindberg himself. The leading critics of the day opined that Strindberg had never written a ‘more repulsive’ or ‘more tedious’ drama: ‘This Dance of Death is a coarse, plodding and dull clog dance, capable of neither moving nor captivating its audience.’ (Source: August Strindberg by Björn Meidal, in the Swedish Institute’s Swedish Portraits series, 1995; translated by me). Modern critics have been kinder, on the whole.
In his naturalistic novel The People of Hemsö (Hemsöborna, 1887), Strindberg (writing as an exile, in Bavaria) conjures up island life, depicting it with humour and using a myriad terms from fishing and farming, flora and fauna, and the local dialect. Despite his animosity and curses against Sweden, ‘the ugly country of schnapps and sandwiches’ (!), ‘my legs itch to return.’ In his Son of a Servant series, he referred to the body’s own distinct homesickness, and proclaimed ‘I simultaneously want to be a European and drag Sweden into Europe!’ In 1884 he argued: ‘Anyone who still doubts the possibility of joining a great European alliance of states . . . should see Switzerland, where the experiment has already been performed, and successfully.’ How true, and how relevant today.
Strindberg has had a bad press in recent decades. But he was neither as much of a misogynist nor as mad as so many have labelled him. As he asserted in the foreword to his short-story collection, Married (1884), about modern woman, the freedom ‘she desires now is the same freedom that all men desire! We should obtain it as friends, not as enemies, since as such we gain nothing.’ (Sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it?) His life was characterised by a series of mental crises (the ‘inferno period’), and he embraced the occult. He returned, in a typically dramatic fashion, to religion -- a highly personal vision of Christianity, with elements of theosophy and Buddhism -- and to Sweden, where he finally succeeded in winning acknowledgement and appreciation. He revitalised the Swedish language and world drama alike.
He was a diarist and a prolific letter-writer. Of the letters, Erland Josephson writes of how the reader is ‘helplessly drawn in, angered and bewitched, infuriated and seduced . . . instantly involved in an internal correspondence with all these petty and gigantic concerns. He addresses himself liberatingly to one’s healthiest madness.’ Healthiest madness: yes, I know what that means. I like that. There is something utterly timeless about him. As Franz Kafka put it, ‘We are Strindberg’s contemporaries and successors.’ If he were alive today, he’d fit in better than most people born in the mid-19th century.
For more, see,,, and

In Sweden, leaving (graduating from) upper secondary (senior high) school means more than just the end of your school career. It marks the beginning of adulthood, and school leavers can ask their parents for whatever means of transport they wish. The streets fill up with young people on horseback, in convertibles and vintage cars, and in huge pick-up trucks decorated with flowers and foliage. There is music and dancing, they wave to passers-by, and none of them wear seatbelts.

Swedish food contains a lot of sugar. Pickled herring, gravlax and the mustard sauce that goes with it, liver pâté and most varieties of bread, for example, contain it. This may be because until the 19th century sugar was so expensive in Sweden that only the rich could afford it, so sweetened food became a status symbol. Personally, I think it’s time the Swedes put that behind them. But gravlax *is* rather delicious.

‘I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951). Most Swedes would, I expect, subscribe to that opinion. But the Swedish reputation for committing suicide in droves is a myth. The suicide rate has, moreover, declined steadily for all age groups since the 1970s. Sweden falls into the intermediate range of countries, as do the USA and Canada, Spain, Germany, Poland, India and Australia. Rates in Britain, Central and South America, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Iran are, admittedly, lower (unless there’s something wrong with the statistics). But the rates in Russia, Finland, Hungary, France, Switzerland, Austria, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Japan, for example, are higher. (Source: WHO Mortality Database.)

Summer in Sweden is something I could write several thousand words about (perhaps even a book). But a quick flash of enlightening wit on the subject is totally beyond me. So I shall simply refer you to the gorgeous pix at and

‘Fermented Baltic herring’ is the conventional English rendering of this inimitable dish. Since salt used to be expensive, the Swedes used just enough of it to start the fish fermenting (as opposed to rotting -- or so the claim goes). The fermentation continues in the tin, with the result that they bulge in the most alarming way, and opening a tin of surströmming is a hazardous venture (never undertaken indoors). The smell is overpowering -- execrable, indeed excremental. (A classic means of retribution is to tip an opened tin through someone’s letterbox.) But the taste -- if you add the sour cream, potatoes, unleavened barley bread and raw onion, and wash it all down with beer and/or schnapps -- is rather splendid.

See on swearing (‘An Easy Guide to Swedish Cursing’). Words of abuse beginning with ‘s’ predominate. Combinations with skit- (skitstövel, skitstropp, etc) are common -- change one consonant and you’ll know what that is -- and others (more or less untranslatable) are skurk, snuskiga stork, spattig, slemmig, slibbig, skunk, various compounds with -skalle (pappskalle, svartskalle, etc), slashas, sopprot, sablas, senapsgas . . . Skit (again) and Satan (pronounced ‘sah-tahn’) come high up on the list in the ‘Swearing Song’ (Svordomsvisan), at

Priorities for last year’s Swedish presidency (January–June 2001) were the ‘three E's’: enlargement, employment and the environment. Sweden also
-- worked for gender equality (see on changes to European law on the equal treatment of men and women at work, June 2001)
-- tried to introduce more openness to the EU decision-making process (see the press release of April 2001 announcing the new rules at
-- sought a united IT strategy to close the digital gap between the countries of the North and the South
-- created a presidency web site ( that provided clear, prompt, accessible and comprehensive information, including the results of working groups and Council meetings
etc. Some EU officials nonetheless described Sweden’s turn at the EU helm as ‘euro-minimalistic’.
The Swedish convergence programme for 2000–03 is largely on track, with strong output growth, low inflation and substantially reduced unemployment. Like the other two member states that opted out of the euro (the UK and Denmark), Sweden is beginning to wonder how long it can afford to stay out in the cold. A referendum on the issue is to be held sometime in 2003. In contrast to Britain and Denmark, Sweden has no special status allowing it to opt out of the final stage of monetary union. Two major stumbling-blocks to Swedish entry to the euro are
-- the depreciation of the krona in the past couple of years (Sweden does not participate in ERM II, an exchange rate mechanism linking non-euro countries to the euro)
-- the lack of independence of the Swedish central bank, Sveriges Riksbank, when it comes to distributing its profit.
Early in 2002, Sweden appealed for the number of working languages in the EU to be reduced, to streamline procedures and counter fears that the expanding bloc risks drowning in a sea of red tape; for the full story, see

Germany was Sweden’s foremost trading partner both before and during the war. See the section headed ‘Knowledge of the Holocaust did not affect trade policy’ at for the summary of the Final Report of the Commission on Jewish Assets in Sweden at the Time of the Second World War. This official report concedes that ‘Sweden’s policy towards the belligerent great powers for most of the war was based on considerations of power politics. Moral issues were excessively disregarded and actions were taken with the overriding purpose of keeping Sweden out of the war and maintaining essential supplies. Today, of course, such an attitude can seem deplorable.’ See also the Swedish History Index at, and ‘Sweden and Jews: History, Tensions, and Changing Relationships’ at

The Swedes tend to overestimate this -- wishful thinking, I suppose. They feel sorry for the rest of the world because of its lack of the advantages afforded by ‘the Swedish way’. They tend to think other countries could solve their problems, if only they adopted Swedish solutions.
A brochure I once translated for the Swedish Institute, entitled Sweden for Women, began with the words ‘Sweden’s general election of September 1994 will go down in history as a victory for women.’* See what I mean?
* Why? ‘Among the Riksdag's 349 members, women now make up 41 per cent -- a world record. In the Social Democratic government that came to power after the election, the sex ratio is fifty-fifty.’

Bofors will sell weapons to any country, as long as the government promises not to use them.

Swedish chefs win a lot of international awards these days, and have very much put this country on the gastronomic map. See, to give your salivary glands a start.

See the Swedish History Index at

See and ‘SWENGLISH’.
Here, for the linguistically curious, is a sample:
Han stod rak – som en snurra så länge piskan viner. Han var blygsam – i kraft av röbusta överlägsenhetskänslor. Han var icke anspråksfull: vad han strävade efter var endast frihet från oro, och andras nederlag gladde honom mer än egna segrar. Han räddade livet genom att aldrig våga det. Och klagade over att han icke var förstådd!
And here is my translation:
He stood erect—like a whip-top as long as the lashes keep coming. He was diffident—thanks to a robust sense of superiority. He was unassuming—all he strove for was freedom from worry, and other people’s defeats pleased him more than his own victories. He saved his life by never risking it—and complained of being misunderstood.
Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings

At least 140 languages are spoken in Sweden today. In less than 25 years, the country has gone from monolingualism and a homogeneous culture to multilingualism and multiculturalism. So the second-generation immigrants, who for some reason are called ‘immigrant children’ despite being born here, are still largely in their teens.
Some people worry about what will happen to children who grow up in places like Rinkeby, in NW Stockholm (where 80% of the population are of non-Swedish origin). Will they become bilingual -- or get stuck at a semi-literate stage of development? Will they be insecure delinquents with a scanty grasp of Swedish, suffering severe disadvantages in the worlds of higher education and employment? New dialects of Swedish, with expressions and pronunciation from many different languages, are emerging. In Stockholm, these are known as rinkebysvenska (which has strong Turkish influences), albysvenska, flemingsbergska and förortssvenska (literally, ‘suburban Swedish’; but the word förort is more like the French word banlieue in its negative connotations than ‘suburb’). Then there are, for example, gårdstenska in Gothenburg och rosengårdssvenska in Malmö.
The grammatical deviations, the incorrect uses of words and the distinctive pronunciation of these dialects may be seen as showing solidarity. Very often, the teenagers concerned know perfectly well how to speak rikssvenska (the real thing), but they choose not to. Speaking it might, quite simply, be perceived as a rejection of one’s ethnic traditions, an attempt to set oneself apart from the people one respects and loves -- parents, friends -- and to pretend to be ‘Swedish’.
Teenage street talk is often highly expressive. The young often speak faster than adults (‘poor articulation’ saves time). They frequently use pitch and tone of voice and to convey emotions and attitudes (‘shout’ and ‘yell’). They often have a dramatic narrative style, using gestures and acting out parts. And they use phonemes of pure sound (iih, blää, ptchch) to dramatise their stories further. They insert small words like liksom (you guessed it, ‘like’!), typ, precis, exakt and hallå, as a kind of oral form of punctuation. All these features of young immigrants’ speech may give the impression, when they talk among themselves, that they are speaking a kind of mixed-up new language of their own.
Many words, from the young people’s many home languages, are entirely unknown to Swedes. Thus ‘money’ may be parra and ‘girl’ giz (from Turkish); they may say kala for ‘good’ and kopella for ‘girl’ (from Greek); or they may call ‘underground train/subway’ the Persian kitar or ‘girl’ the Roma rakli’. Exclamations like the Turkish abu are added for emphasis, as in abu, vilken bil! (What a cool car!), and they may ask, as in Greek, ti kanis? (how are you?).
Source (in Swedish):

In the West, this is the dominant form of traditional massage practised and technique taught ( Unfortunately, it’s also a common code phrase for sex, as used in small ads and the ‘business cards’ that pollute so many London phone booths.

. . . have never had it so good. Or so one might think. But women in Sweden are also the most hardworking and stressed in Europe -- there are fresh EU statistics to prove it! It was hoped that once the female gainful-employment rate was on a par with the male (as it is now, at least for some age groups), gender inequality would automatically be a thing of the past and women’s problems in the labour market would have been solved. But the distribution of power in Swedish society is still skewed, and Sweden for Women (translated for the Swedish Institute by me in 1994) shows that this is reflected in the high degree of gender segregation of the Swedish labour market:
-- ‘around 35% of women are in occupations where nine out of ten are women, while 40% of men are at workplaces where nine out of ten are men.’
-- ‘40% of women work part-time and most women are engaged in traditional female occupations, with low pay and few opportunities for advancement’
-- ‘Both banks and corporate advisers have often regarded female entrepreneurship as a kind of hobby, a supplement to the family finances.’
-- ‘Although they work outside the home, Swedish women still bear primary responsibility for the household and children.’
-- ‘Ninety per cent of parental leave is taken by women. Half of all fathers never take a single day's parental allowance.’
-- ‘Women entrepreneurs are found mostly in service trades, as sole traders. These women seldom come into contact with industrial and business organisations and businessmen’s associations, which are excessively male-dominated’
Depressing reading? A lot of women have got better things to do, of course. My view is that any woman with a modicum of talent who really wants to break into the male bastions and mingle with the suits can do it in Sweden, more easily than in most other countries. But we’re post-feminist, you know: most of us are too busy happily doing our own thing to come up against any glass ceiling that might exist out there.

For something more cheering, see and and for information about the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sweden: the Birka and Hovgården archaeological complex, the Royal Domain of Drottningholm, the Engelsberg Ironworks, the Skogskyrkogården cemetery, the Rock Carvings in Tanum, the Hanseatic Town of Visby, Gammelstad Church Town, Laponia, the Naval Port of Karlskrona, the High Coast in Västernorrland, the (agri)cultural landscape of southern Öland and the mining area of the Great Copper Mountain in Falun.

The bane of many a teacher’s and translator’s life -- but part of our professional raison d’être. Combating it makes up a key and never-ending element in our livelihood, whether we like it or not. (How could anyone actually like it?)

The days of Sweden’s stringent alcohol laws may be numbered: see an article on the subject at The article sums up the situation succinctly: ‘High taxes are meant to deter Swedes from buying beer, wine and spirits. And apart from bars and restaurants, only state-run liquor outlets are allowed to sell alcohol to the public. However, the strict legislation has led to a significant smuggling trade from cheaper countries, and moonshine production is rampant is rural areas.’
See also, for everything you might want to know about ‘the Swedish Alcohol Retailing Monopoly’. Anyone particularly interested in Swedish alcohol policy could download the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs’ Preventing Alcohol-Related Harm. A Comprehensive Policy for Public Health in Sweden (translated by me), April 2002, at

Sweden: a virtual tour

-- ‘Summer in Sweden’, informative and quite well written, with good pix:
-- Mark Twain’s summer in Sweden, Chapter 206 of Albert Bigelow Paine’s Mark Twain: A Biography (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912; BoondocksNet Edition, 2001;
-- ‘CityGuide Sweden’ at
-- Museums: in Stockholm,; in Sweden,
-- Skansen Open-air Museum and Zoological Gardens,
-- Takashi Murata’s lovely pictures of Sweden and perceptive, fascinating diary at
-- More pix at and
-- ‘The Sweden Information Smorgasbord’, ‘the web's largest single source of info in English on Sweden, Swedish provinces, nature, culture, lifestyle, society and industry’:
-- Food: ‘A Summer Lunch in Sweden’, picture, at Click to go to ‘A small red cottage’ (that looks quite like ours).
-- ‘Accident Prevention, a Swedish Success Story’, at
-- Ships and ship museums,; the Vasa,
-- ‘Beautyful’ places to stay in the mountains,
-- US Embassy commercial guide,
-- IKEA: ‘How Ikea won over the Brits’ (