10 Scandinavian Words We Wish We Had in English

updated Oct 26, 2022
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Welcome to Scandi Week—Apartment Therapy’s seven-day focus on all-things Scandinavia (often defined as the countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway). Sometimes it seems like the whole world is obsessed with trying to copy this corner of the globe, from its timeless style aesthetic to its now-famous coziness rituals. For the next week, we’ll take a look at all of it—cleaning, pop culture, and of course tons of eye-popping design inspiration. Pull up a blanket and get hygge with us.

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We Americans are absolutely smitten with untranslatable, cool words. There’s just something about the unity of an expression like “schadenfreude”—from German, it means feeling pleasure for somebody else’s misfortune—that validates a very complicated, yet collective, human feeling.

Or consider the magic of “saudade” from Portuguese: It refers to a longing for something you don’t or can’t have, but it’s, like, more than that, though. A nostalgia for something you’ve never known… kinda. Discovering the word “saudade” is as if you’ve picked up the wrong screwdriver: You don’t really have the tool to unwind that emotion in English, do you?

With all of the wistful turns of phrase in the world, no one language has a monopoly on untranslatable vocabulary. But Scandinavians sure do know their way around a damn good word. Being that it’s Scandi Week here on Apartment Therapy, we wanted to highlight a few of our favorites.

Starting with the classics (of course), here’s your guide to Instagram-era Nordic vernacular:

Oh, “hygge.” Its exact English translation is contentious and better described through actions and qualities than words. And yes, hygge is still hot. Especially when temperatures drop.

(Image credit: Seth Mourra / Stocksy)

Niki Brantmark—who wrote the book on Lagom (literally.)—describes it like this: “Lagom is an overarching concept heavily ingrained in the Swedish psyche. Loosely translated as ‘not too much and not too little, just right,’ lagom is about finding a balance that works for you.”

Read more: What is Lagom?

(Image credit: Laura Stolfi / Stocksy)

Ok, “lykke” actually does translate quite nicely to “happiness.” But the Danes have managed to inscribe the word with a whole lot more meaning—inspiring a book dedicated to pursuing and finding the good that exists in the world around us every day.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

If you’re a proud homebody, “kalsarikannit” should speak to your soul. And the Finns are so proud of this way of life that they gave it its very own emoji.

(Image credit: GIC / Stocksy)

You have permission to make this a part of your group’s regular lexicon, so your friend can subtly tell you to check your “knullruffs” when you walk into that 9 a.m. staff meeting.

Yes, a word just for coffee breaks! But it’s even better than you think. For Swedes, “fika” is an important aspect of mindfulness and productivity.

“It’s easy to assume you’ll get more done if you work solidly throughout the morning and grab a sandwich at your desk instead of heading out to lunch, but the reality is you’ll feel a whole lot better—and maintain efficiency—throughout the day if you take decent breaks,” says Niki Brantmark, the voice behind My Scandinavian Home.

(Image credit: Aaron Thomas / Stocksy)

Finns love the word “sisu” for the way it embodies their national character. As the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs says: “Arctic nature has given us guts.”

(Image credit: Studio Firma / Stocksy)

“Orka” seems like the perfect word for 2k18, the year of anxiety. When someone asks if you’re coming out for drinks tonight, you can reply, “No, I don’t orkar.” There are a couple of other great examples in this Reddit thread.

(Image credit: Alexey Kuzma / Stocksy)

“Gruglede” is like excitement, with a tinge of fear. Like you might feel on the first day of school, or waiting for a new baby. It comes from the words “grue,” meaning dread, and “glede,” which means to happily look forward to something.

The word “sambovikt” comes from “sambo,” the word for a live-in partner, and “vikt,” which means “weight.” The Swedes actually have many words for what to call your partner, depending on the nature (and distance) of the relationship.

For example, while “sambo” is what you call a partner you live with but haven’t married, “sarbo” is used to describe your partner when you live apart (we English speakers resort to “LDR“).

Do you know any others? Share them in the comments!