Last update: 2014.11.30
Swedish words that don’t exist in English. Not “unique Swedish words”, as many or even all of these exist in other languages, but just ones that aren’t in English. Occasionally updated as I find more.
On this list are not words that English has taken from Swedish (ex. ombudsman, smörgåsbord), and not words that relate to things only done/available in Sweden (ex. äggost which is a type of food, skogsrå which is a mythical lady in the forest who is part fox or something).
Since some nouns have verbforms and vice versa those repeats haven’t been added either. I tried to limit them to compounds with only two words, and while there exist a lot more slang words that don’t exist in English, I’m only adding slang words that are so common you can see them on advertisements and they’re in the Swedish-English dictionary etc.
att harkla sig – to clear one’s throat (technically we have “to hawk” as the same, as in “to hawk a loogie”, but no one knows that). i think it can refer to both the action and the sound.
att snyta sig – to blow one’s nose
att blunda – to close one’s eyes. funnily enough i saw it used once like “att blunda med öronen – to close one’s eyes with the ears” and they meant it like “to cover one’s ears”.
att slarva – to do a sloppy job
att dofta – to smell good. as in, it can’t be used for anything that smells bad.
att förlisa – for ships to be wrecked or flounder (fill with water and sink)
att heta – to be called, to be named
att duka – to set a table
att diska – to do the dishes
att bädda – to make the bed
att hinna – to have enough time (to do something or to make it to a place)
?? – to divide a plot of land(?)
att slopa – to “not give something (of your own) to the community”, often meaning to dismiss one’s own ideas/projects/etc. as no good and not worth doing. So ex. if you have a group project and you think your own ideas are bad and so you don’t voice them to the group. It cannot be used for other’s actions (ex. to dismiss someone else’s idea), or so I’ve been told. Secondarily the verb means “to skip, to remove from inventory”.
att morna sig – to “morn(ing) oneself”, to very slowly become awake “just as it very slowly becomes morning after night”. in a text i read, they used it to mean “to hit snooze on the alarm clock and stay in bed half-asleep for another hour or two before finally getting up and actually feeling awake”. Secondarily and archaically it means “to be/become extremely awake” and another archaic meaning when paired with the word illa/dålig (as in “han ser dåligt mornad ut – he sees badly morn’d out”) meant “to be in a bad mood from not having enough sleep”.
att kvällna – to “evening”, meaning to gradually become evening. like the time starting in the afternoon where it begins to get a bit cooler and maybe darker but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dusk or “actually dark” yet. ex. “det kvällnas – it is gradually becoming evening”, translates to something like “evening is getting on” in more normal english. I think we probably have a word in english for this but if so i forgot it.
att plinga – to pling, to make a plinging (ding-dong-ish) noise, to make something make a plinging noise (ex. push a button and it makes a sound). Same as when we say something like “I got plinged/beeped/buzzed/ringed” when someone messages you on IM, your pager goes off, someone called on the phone… except similar words are made for various different sound effects and swedish both uses them a lot more than english and has a lot more variety of them. Just like in English, each one has its own “tone” or sound (you can’t use “buzz” to describe “beep” now can you?) and there are sound effects that we don’t have words for in english.
att glappa – to glitch due to bad contact in the wiring (ex. the phone charger cord is often bent and eventually inside it breaks a little and then the charger doesn’t work properly, or the sound sometimes doesn’t work in one ear of the headphones, etc.)
att våras för – to “be/become springtime for”, meaning “now is a good time for”. ex. the swedish title for the movie “spaceballs” is “det våras för rymden – it’s springtime for space”, translating to “it’s a good time to go to space”. it sometimes also describe things that are probably going to be popular (“it’s a good time to introduce this as a new product, it will probably sell well”).
att vabba – to stay at home to care for your sick kid (or to pretend to be doing that and actually be using your kid as an excuse to stay home from work). an abbreviation of “vård av barn (“care of child” – no, not ward of child) that turned into a verb. this appears even on advertisements in town. As a noun, you can use vabbning.
att vobba – to work from home while also caring for a sick child. abbreviation of “vabba” from above and “jobba – work (on a job)”. As a noun, you can use vobbning.
att orka, att tya (dialectal), att rå (dialectal) – to have the energy to do something (whether it’s mental or physical energy). in some dialects it’s used in place of the below related ones, to mean all or any of those ideas. but in other dialects they’re separate words that aren’t interchangeable. att tya is very dialectal, my wife hadn’t even heard of it (but it’s big enough to be in the SV-EN dictionary), and “att tya” is described as “to be able to go on” so if that’s true it’s a little different from orka but still very similar. Not sure if att rå is a direct synonym for orka since i found only a little on it.
att idas, att palla – to feel like doing something, to be able to be bothered to do something. “palla is used by young people, your mom wouldn’t say it but would say idas instead because like palla äpplen means to steal (filch) apples”.
att gitta (dialectal) – to bring oneself to, to have strength or power enough for, to care. So very similar to the above two. “also this is like foreigner-slang for ‘to run away’, but i would never use it like that” says a swede.
att mysa – to have a cosy, unstressed time (ex. cuddling and watching tv, sunbathing, snacking and playing videogames with your friends). It’s also seen in “fredagsmys – friday’s cosy time” which means when you buy snacks to eat on friday (the newly-traditional “only day of the week where you can eat candy/junk food if it’s not a holiday”, the same thing is on Saturday in Iceland and Finland I think??).
att släka – to turn off the light, power source, or heat source. It means “to extinguish” only for light and power sources as well, and it can be used when only temporarily turning something off.
att tända – to “tend/kindle” light or heat sources. Meaning to turn on the lights, turn on the burner on the stove, turn on the oven, light the fire, etc. Again, can be used for temporary things too.
att bruka – to usually/normally/habitually do something. Likewise the adjective is “bruklig – customary”. This one is probably shouldn’t be on this list, but there are many times where you can’t translate it with just one word in English (or it’s not natural to do so) due to grammar, and Swedish uses it a lot more often than English. Ex. the past-tense form “brukade – used to”, “jag brukade äta kött – I used to (regularly) eat meat, I tended to eat meat in the past“, sometimes due to grammar we have to use a fuller sentence like those examples.
att fukta – to be/become damp and (begin or potentially begin to) rot and emit a putrid/rotting smell. in swedish it technically means “to get/be damp or humid” but still (from how I hear it used anyway) strongly implies that it’s going to get moldy due to that same dampness. so it’s similar to “musty” except “musty” is also used for stale (dry) things and old things in general. it’s related to the old norse/icelandic word “fúkki” which means “moldy/rotting smell” (or something like that). for example, you use “fukta” when you have bedding that’s been sitting in one place for too long and needs to be aired out or there’s a risk of it getting gross.
att förekomma – to “fore-come”, when something exists/appears within something else (ex. “we found x in group y” or “out of humankind, swedes are dumb”). at least archaically it also meant the same as “it came forth that…” in English, but that’s only one of the tons of definitions it had archaically, here we’re just focusing on this one.
att fika – to have a nice coffee/snack break (usually with other people). except it doesn’t have to be a break from anything, you can technically fika all day long if you want. it includes things like “eating at a café”, “having a coffee break at work”, “having dessert”, and “eating catered food at a public meeting”.
att valvaka – to “option-vigil” (vigil as in “keep watch on something”), to stay up (implied late) watching the election poll results come in on tv, typically with other people and having a sort of party (or cosy time). Just like “fika” and some others, it apparently normally means with other people “but can be done alone if you’re a lonely/sad person”.
att tiga – to keep silent, to hold one’s tongue. Sure, we can say this, but we don’t have a single word for it as far as I know.
vak – hole (cut) in the ice (ex. for fishing in winter)
husse – man who owns a dog (ex. the dog’s “master”)
matte – woman who owns a dog (ex. the dog’s “mistress”)
övermorgon – “over-morning”, day after tomorrow. the same word exists in german for example.
näver – birch bark
flärp – technically “tab”, but is the name for when you’ve cut open packaging (ex. a pack of noodles or a box of dried beans) and there are little snipped-off bits of paper or plastic. those bits are “flärpar”.
gengångare – “again-walker”, someone who’s “yet again walking on the earth after death”, ex. a ghost or zombie.
krem – substances like “paste” and “ointment” as in toothpaste and wound cream, except only comprising things with that thickness, so it also includes frosting and cream filling. It isn’t just used for medicine.
sambo – one of a couple who are living together and “dating” but not married (no year/age limit). since swedes don’t feel as big a need to get married as ex. americans, this word comes up a lot.
lapp – small scrap of paper. it can also be used to describe something as trivial or as small as a scrap of paper, ex. “läderlapp” (leather-lapp) is a word for a bat (the animal).
gryt – mound of earth. not exactly a “dirtpile” i think. where i saw it, it was used to describe a natural mound of earth that an animal was napping on top of.
dygn – day and night, 24 hours, a full day. By the way, the same word in Icelandic is “sólarhringur”, meaning “solar-ring/circle”.
förrgår – “fore-day”, day before yesterday. note that går is a really old word and only appears in some phrases (igår – to-day).
klämdag – “pinch-day”, working-day in-between two non-working ones (ex. 1 holiday, then 1 work-day, then 1 holiday)
skare – snow crust or ice crust. does not mean other forms of crust (such as bread crust, pie crust, or the earth’s crust).
göl (uncommon word) – small, swampy pond, lake, or other body of standing water. For example, the shallow, still-standing water that flamingos often live in. although not every swede is going to know this word.
klyfta – “cleft, clove, wedge” as in “clove of garlic”, except it’s also used for other “cloves” such as orange slices and tomatoes, and it means the “naturally formed” slice in an orange as opposed to one cut by you with a knife.
saft – juice that has been processed somehow, as in the pulp has been taken out, sugar has been added, or it’s been boiled down into concentrated juice (“squash” in british english), etc. Usually it means concentrated juice/squash though.
gubbe – little (cute) old man. has some other usages, like it can be used as an endearing nickname for little kids (or less often, adults) and is used to say like “that character/guy” for videogames.
gumma – little (cute) old lady. same as above.
smultronställe – “smultron (mini strawberry)-place”, your nice little secret place that makes you feel good and that no one else knows about (or no one you know, knows about).
spad – water left over from boiling something. including boiling meat, fruit, something inedible, whatever. So ex. the cloudy water left in the pot after boiling pasta or sausage. We have “broth” in English but you can’t say “pasta broth” for example, and broth is always intentionally made (typically has spices in it and is meant for eating/drinking) whereas spad isn’t necessarily something you have any use for.
lårkaka – “thigh-cake”, an internal thigh hæmorrhage. The dictionary says this is a “Charlie-horse” in English, but actually a Charlie-horse is just a leg-cramp and not a hæmorrhage, which is “an escape of blood from a ruptured blood vessel”.
skate (uncommon word) – the dry top of a tree, especially (but not only) if the branches have been cut off and it’s been “cleaned up” a little. “why do you need a word like that?!” well these sorts of trees are used in woodworking.
staket and stängsel – these both mean “fence” except staket is “a cute/decorational fence” and stängsel is “a fence designed for keeping something in or out”. So for example, a normal metal/wire/whatever fence for animals, or a chain-link fence, is stängsel but a nice-looking fence at a cemetary, or a fence with decorations, is staket. Just image-search the words on Google for more examples.
holme and morän – the former exists in English as “holm” but only in place-names (as far as I know) and also as far as I know, no one has any clue what it means. it means “a small (and usually uninhabited) island, a rocky outcrop, or an area of solid ground surrounded by marsh” as the Swedish definition. Most notably it appears in the place-name “Stockholm“. In Old Norse/Icelandic it was “hólmr” which meant “an islet” but also “to fall in a duel” (because people would challenge each other to duels on islets).
Likewise, morän is a loanword in Swedish and also exists as a very-unknown word in English (moraine – “a mass of rocks and sediment that were carried down and deposited by a glacier, typically as ridges at its edges or extremity” as the English definition), however in Swedish it’s an extremely commonly-known word, or so I hear. What I’m getting at, is that those two words can be combined to form moränholme (an island, rocky outcrop, or solid ground in a marsh which was created by a mass of rocks/sediment that had been carried by glaciers). No, I didn’t just put them together for no reason, it shows up when watching made-in-Sweden nature documentaries.
särkullbarn – “separate(d)-brood/litter-children”… a child of “when you had kids with someone and then are living apart from the spouse (not necessarily meaning you’re divorced, maybe you love them but just want to live alone)”… something like that. Anyway, I don’t mean specifically this word but that there are a lot of swedish words for “weird living situations” that english doesn’t have. i saw this one on an advertisement about how you ought to write your will/testament.
tjälle – when the ground is frozen even under the surface, aka “when the water inside the ground freezes to ice due to very low temperatures”. it happens every winter in sweden, and the volume of the ground raises 9% says Wiki. (When this phenomenon happens year-round, it’s called permafrost.) Due to that, you have tjälskott “frozen ground sprout/shoot”, and tjällossning “frozen ground loosing” which refer to when, due to the deeply-frozen ground thawing in spring, the underground earth moves as it thaws and causes things like cracks in roads. this is why sweden haven’t have much machinery and things underground, because this phenomenon would break or disrupt them every year.
stoft – the ”easy-to-fall-off” scales on a butterfly’s wings (admittedly, one of the more obscure meanings).
tilly (or tilly-, jesuit-, guajack-, haarlem- droppar) etc. – (archaic) As far as I can tell, the so-called English name is “gratia probatum” or maybe “haarlem drops”. Just as with “att banta (to diet – from William Banting)”, the Swedes simply took a guy’s last name and turned it into a noun/verb. It’s a “sulphur-balsalm” medicine. This says mix 100 parts sulphur-flowers with 500 parts flaxseed oil, warm it up, then dissolve it in three times its amount of turpentine (according to weight), and then sieve the mixture. Latin name “Oleum sulfuratum terebinthinatum”. Used at least from the late 1600’s to the 1950’s, it was a cure-all.
This says: ”The ’real’ tilly-flasks are about 10 cm. long and rectangular, with close to 2 cm. sides. The contents are dark brown or red-brown, not transparent, a sort of oil and a rather thick-flowing liquid with a thoroughly horrible smell and taste. The preparation is done as follows: Sublimed sulphur (1 part) is dissolved under careful stirring and in small portions into flaxseed oil (4 parts), warmed up to +150°C. The blend is kept at a high temperature, of which however cannot go over +200°, until the dissolving is finished. It stiffens with cooling off, until a gel. This gel is dissolved 1 part to 3 parts cleaned turpentine-oil and is preserved in well-closed flasks. Generally, utilize it in doses of 6-12 drops onto sugar with water, against cronic lung-catarrh, among other things.”
säter, fäbod – the “summer mountain pasture (with a pen or building)” where sheep or cows are moved to during high summer. This is the name of one of the old Norse months (Stekktíð or Selmánaðr in Old Norse, translating to Sätertid and Fäbodmånad in Swedish).
adjectives and miscellanious:
drygt – just over. as in “an amount that’s just over x”. sort of an opposite to the word “barely, just under’ (which is “knappt” by the way).
nja – yes and no. literally “nej (no) ja (yes)” put together, it can translate to “kinda” when clarifying something. it is also used when you just don’t want to outright say “no” due to thinking that it would be rude or the person might get mad, such as when saying you don’t agree with their ideas. in that case it means “i’d like to (agree with you/accept your invitation/whatever), but…”, exactly like ちょっと in Japanese. “njo” means the same thing but is only to be used in certain grammatical ways since “jo” is another word for “yes” only used at certain times…
kissnödig – “piss-needy”, needing to piss. maybe it shouldn’t belong on this list. Similar words can be made sometimes by adding nödig “needy, in need of”.
öm – adjective that describes someone who is “harbouring feelings”. Therefore it’s like “brooding” only can be used for all emotions. It also means “something which gives you pain when you touch it” (in that case normally translating to “the injury is sensitive“), and slightly more archaically it means “full of love” (ex. ömblick “full-of-love-glance”, a loving glance). Nowadays it’s not usually used to describe people (though in the past it could) and is reserved for describing actions instead. Anyway, here we’re focusing on the first meaning.
intake of breath – this is common in all nordic languages (although i dunno about greenlandic). when my swedish wife says it, it often sounds sort of like “sssp” (almost as if you were lightly sipping soup from a spoon) and is definitely not the same sound as a gasp or actual word. icelandic often literally says “yes” using it, with the same sort of feeling as when talking or even muttering to yourself. by the way, i heard that in finnish they commonly use breath-intakes for just plain talking (as in, without stopping – talking both with breath going out and going in). In both Icelandic and Swedish (and I assume, Norway, Faroes, Denmark – and possibly Finland) the “intake of breath” has a range of meanings. None of these, however, have the pressing/rude meaning of “shut up!”. The true meaning is probably best told by body language and facial expressions of the person throughout the conversations.
swedes at least, generally show their emotions in the body language/facial expression instead of words, and the words themselves may actually stay neutral, positive, or “politically-correct” including in tone even while they actually disagree with what they’re saying (but are being polite so they won’t say what they really think). the problem is that some foreigners never pay attention, because swedish reactions aren’t exaggerated like american emotions often are, so it’s more on the level of grimaces, quirks of the lip or twinkles in the eye than shouting “OH MY GOD I’m so happy I’m going to cry! Thank you so so so so much!”. for example, you can be extremely disappointing to your teacher but they won’t normally say it, you have to read it in their body language and expression. this is why you hear the misconception that swedes are “cold” or “unfriendly”, it’s because the person who thinks that isn’t properly paying attention to the swede and so they are missing all their “real” reactions and feelings. meanwhile to the swede, spouting out all your feelings so blatantly (as americans and englishmen do) feels cheap.
so anyway, the “ssssup” can mean:
– “i see, i’m listening”, or “i agree”. when my wife uses it to mean this, it’s a bit joking, meaning that she is in a good mood or that you are seen as more of a friendly buddy even if you haven’t met before. she also might, for example, use it as an answer/response after her sister said a dumb joke. in iceland everyone definitely uses it to mean “i see” no matter if they see the person as friendly or not.
– “yes, i heard you, except what you said doesn’t require an answer (not necessarily in a bad way, maybe i enjoy listening to you)”
– “well now, i am listening but let’s change the subject because i don’t care”
– “i don’t hate you or anything, but there’s nothing more to say about the subject, you’re just repeating yourself”.
– “you’re being really talkative, i am pre-occupied or at least want to do something else than have this conversation with you (not necessarily in a bad way)”
– doctors use it a lot to mean: “i am treating what you say seriously, but we need to move on to something else or we’ll run out of time”
– doctors also often mean: “wow that’s some serious stuff you’re talking about, i don’t know what to say but i offer you my support” (for example if you’re telling a psychologist a story about how you were abused)
lagom – like けっこう in Japanese maybe? (i know there was one japanese word that directly corresponded to it but i forgot which one). appropriate, normal, sufficient, fine, just right, “whatever amount you think is correct/good”. It’s not that we don’t have it in English, but we have to use different words depending on the situation. It’s due to that in Swedish culture, “adequate” is seen as good instead of lacking. In America it’s “it’s okay, but it would be better if it were better”. but in Sweden, it’s actually better if it’s “adequate”, as you don’t want too much of something or to try too hard.
In the sense of “appropriate/normal” it can be used to describe behaviour, sort of like when we say “use your indoor voice”, “don’t scare them”, “sit still”, “don’t be greedy” (aka. “don’t over-yell, don’t over-act, calm down and be just normal and polite since you bother people if you’re not acting normal”). So it’s used in situations where we really wouldn’t use it in English, and that’s why people tend to think it doesn’t exist in English. Personally I think this word/culture came about because Swedes were always super poor (as in “eating grass soup with leather belts soaked in it to eke out the nutrients in the leather” poor), if you ate too much today you’d have to starve the next day, if you worked too hard you might die from overwork but if you worked too little you’d die of starvation, haha.
sin, sina, sitt etc. – this word refers back to the subject in a way that makes it clear you’re talking about them. “the boys play with their (own) cat – pojkarna spelar med sina katt”. there is another word that makes it clear that you’re talking about someone else’s. “the boys play with their (someone else’s) cat – pojkarna spelar med deras katt” (could be wrong swedish, i dunno right now). in both times, the english word is normally the same, sometimes it has “own” tacked onto it, but normally you just know by context.