Crushing a Swedish Language Myth

All languages have myths. It’s peculiar how many linguistic myths are repeated to such an extent that they occur in newspaper articles, discussions and blogs. In the end, they seem to be true.

The Swedish word “lagom” is one of the greatest myths in the Swedish language. It is often claimed that the word does not translate into any other language, but that is not true.

The English equivalent of “Lagom” could be “just right”, “enough”, “sufficient”, “moderately”, “adequate”, or “fitting”. It is even translateable into French with the word “assez” or into German with  “richtig”, “genägend”, “ausreichend”, “passend”, or “angemessen“.

Lagom är bäst” is a common saying in Sweden that describes a balanced state; not too much or too little, but just right. The value of “just enough” can be compared to the idiom “less is more”, rather than something like “the more, the better”.

A translation is never just a string of words that are formed into sentences. To make sense, it is necessary to know the context a word is used in and what feeling is trying to be expressed.

A common explanation, and the myth, is that lagom derives from the Viking Age when mead, a type of beer created by fermenting honey with water, was a common beverage. As people in a community drank from the same cup of mead, it went around in a  circle, or laget om. It was important that everyone drank a certain amount to leave enough in the cup for everyone else.

It seems as though it is much easier to create a myth like this one than to end it. Mikael Parkvall, a Swedish linguist, professor and researcher at Stockholm University, publishes an interesting blog, and his humourous writing is spot on when it comes to different languages. Parkvall explains that lagom really has nothing to do with the fermented beer, but that instead it describes the essential and elementary basis of the Swedish national psyche, which is one of consensus and equality.

The Swedes consider their moderate ideology to be a positive one and, sometimes ironically, use the term “Lagomlandet Sverige” (Sweden, the lagom country) about themselves, meaning perhaps that Swedes are a bit dull, colorless and boring. In Lagom-Sweden we praise moderation, balance and wisdom to determine a course of action between extremes like yes or no, much or little, hot and cold.

The idea of lagom has become integrated into Swedish diplomacy and is the acceptable, politically-correct way of responding to situations or dealing with subjects one does not completely agree upon. Therefore, it is not the word, but the feeling and meaning that is available in Swedish! Today is a “lagom warm day”. But it’s not. The weather is not just lagom, but wonderful. The sun is shining and the sky is blue.

Obviously, “just enough” is a subjective expression. Each person has their own lagom measurement. What lagom is for one person may not be so for another. If I ask someone how much fruit one should eat a week, they might answer “lagom“, which might not make quantitative sense. Still, I would nod tacitly because, as a Swede, I’d understand exactly what they mean.