v19: jordgubbe

Swedish jordgubbe = strawberry. And interestingly, both words are different from the name for this (accessory) fruit in other Germanic languages, for example:

German: Erdbeere
Dutch: aardbei
Danish, Norwegian: jordbær

All these words refer to the Garden Strawberry, Fragaria × ananassa, the most commonly cultivated of the Fragaria species, which happens to be an octoploid (eight sets of seven chromosomes) species, and therefore apparently more robust and producing larger fruit. Another well-known strawberry in Sweden is the smultron, or Woodland Strawberry, Fragaria vesca, which is a diploid (two sets of seven chromosomes) species.

Back to the words. The straw in strawberry may refer to the external seeds which cover the fruit. And jordgubbe = jord (earth; the two words have the same Germanic root) + gubbe (a Swedish dialect word meaning little lump).

The Swedish word sounds odd because the word gubbe commonly means old man, a word which Norstedts describes as having uncertain origin, but probably originally children’s talk for someone tjockt, klumpigt och böjt (stout, clumsy and bent)!

Another nice Swedish strawberry word is smultronställe = smultron + ställe (place), which means not just a good place to find wild strawberries, but in general, a favourite haunt.

Published in: on May 23, 2010 at 15:28  Leave a Comment  
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v18: glassig

Another two easily-confused words are glas (glass) and glass (icecream). Glas has a long vowel, so does sound similar to the English glass, whereas glass has a short vowel (and long ‘s’), so sounds similar to the French glace, from which it is derived. But what about the adjective glassig? Norstedts defines glassig as flashy, fashionable, with-it, but SAOL says:

blank och glänsande; ytligt flott
bright and shiny; superficially stylish

Which incidentally adds a whole lot of related words into the mix: glans (gloss, shine), glansig (glossy), glänsa (to shine), and glänsande (shiny).

A correspondent on WordReference has this to say about glassig:

Flashy (ostentatious, glossy) is the meaning. It’s said to be derived from eng. glassy (shiny, as glass), but IMO it sounds more likely to come from glossy.
The word has a slightly negative connotation: something which is glossy or flashy in order to brag or show off.

However, there’s also the possibility to make a pun here, if you really want to. For example, a search for glassigaste (the superlative of glassig) on Google Sweden has as the top result Årets glassigaste brollop (The year’s most glassig wedding), which is the wedding of Clovve, the mascot of the icecream company GB Glace. Also, a local shopping mall is currently promoting Årets glassigaste modefest (The year’s most glassig fashion show), with icecream featuring prominently in the advertising. Which just leaves me a little more confused about the connotations of glassig.

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 10:51  Comments (1)  
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v16: orolig

As you may have noticed, there seems to be some correlation not only between word length and frequency, but also between those two and irregularity. That is, the commonest words in a language are often short, and have a tendency to be irregular. So, when learning a language, the beginning (common words) can be the the hardest part. Here’s another example regarding adjectives; I’ve been trying to learn some comparatives, superlatives and opposites:

good, better, best
bra, bättre, bäst

bad, worse, worst
dålig, sämre, sämst

Then I thought this was an easy one: what’s the opposite of rolig (fun, funny)? Orolig seems the obvious candidate, for reasons described previously, but in fact, no. The opposite of rolig is tråkig (boring), whereas orolig (anxious) is the opposite of lugn (calm).

Here it seems to be rolig that has undergone a change in meaning, since it derives from an old Swedish word roliker, meaning calm, and is also related to the noun ro (peace, calmness). However, the corresponding verb is roa (to amuse). I don’t quite follow thw connection between amusement and calmness; the opposites make much more sense, with the noun oro (anxiety) and the verb oroa (to worry) completing the set.

Published in: on May 1, 2010 at 20:00  Comments (4)  
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v52: galen

Not the 2nd century Roman physician Galen, but the adjective galen (mad, crazy). Swedish adjectives inflect, agreeing with the noun they modify. For indefinite nouns, there are three forms, which take the following endings: common singular (no ending), neuter singular (+t), and plural (+a):

stor, stort, stora

en stor bil
a big car

ett stort torg
a big square

två stora bilar / torg
two big cars / squares

With definite nouns, the adjective is used with the +a ending. There is also a definite ending +e, which is used: when referring to a male person; with past participles ending in -ad; and with superlatives ending in -ast.

There are of course exceptions to the regular pattern, which depend mainly on the ending of the base form of the adjective; for example, adjectives ending in -en, such as galen, have the following pattern:

galen, galet, galna

You’ll find galen in such phrases as galen vetenskapsman (mad scientist), galna ko-sjukan (mad cow disease), and the children’s book series Galna Gatan. See that? I’m already reinforcing previous “lessons”.

But galen also has a wonderful etymology; according to Norstedts Etymologiska Ordbok, the meaning derives from the verb gala, which is mainly now translated as to crow, but previously has meant to sing magical songs. Thus galen meant förhäxad genom trollsånger (bewitched by magical songs). Which doesn’t sound too bad, really.

God Jul och Gott Nytt År!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Published in: on December 22, 2009 at 12:50  Comments (2)  
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v42: lök

I am an onion. Last week’s picture, that is, is a spring onion (salladslök or knipplök; Allium fistulosum). Actually I am a bit of an onion also: I was supposed to buy spring onions at the supermarket, but bought chives (gräslök; Allium schoenoprasum) instead. Onion in Swedish is lök. The prototypical onion is Allium cepa, which has many varieties, including silverlök (white onion), rödlök (red [Spanish] onion), gul lök (brown onion), and schalottenlök (shallot). Other related vegetables are purjolök (leek; Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum), and vitlök (garlic; Allium sativum). Lök also means bulb or bud, as in tulpanlök (tulip bulb) and smaklök (taste bud).

I’m still a little puzzled as to why it’s silverlök and rödlök but not *gullök (see two weeks ago for the discussion of särskrivning).

I hadn’t previously thought of either chives or garlic as being onions. The English names don’t make it obvious, whereas the Swedish ones do; I thought this was an intersting example of how even nouns can be categorised differently in two such closely-related languages as English and Swedish. I guess this will be a fruitful (vegetableful?) topic for further discussion.

Although they seem at first to be very different words, the derivations of the names of the vegetables in English and Swedish are rather interesting and overlapping: Onion in Latin is cepa (from which chives is derived, via the French cive). In Greek, apparently (my knowledge of Greek is pretty non-existent) leek is praso [πράσο] and green is prasino [πράσινο], hence the species name of leeks and chives, as well as the element Praseodymium. Leek, lök, and the -lic in garlic are related. The porrum in the botanical name for leek gives both the purjo- in purjolök, and porridge.

Next week:


I said I’d talk about colour terms again. Pigs have come in for a bit of a bashing lately thanks to swine flu. What colour are pigs?

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 19:36  Comments (1)  
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v38: blå

Coming back through Arlanda airport recently, I noticed an advertisement with the word blåsig, which my colleague said meant windy, as in blåsa (to blow), and wasn’t related to the word blå (blue). But the sky is blue, and the wind blows out of the sky, so do you think those words really could be related?

In fact, etymological dictionaries say that blå and blue are certainly related, deriving from a common Proto-Indo-European (PIE) base, *bhle-was (or maybe *bhleuos) “light-colored, blue, blond, yellow”. It seems that PIE speakers weren’t too fussy about their colour words; the Latin flavus “yellow” is also derived from the same root. [The * means there is no written example of the PIE word, it was “reconstructed” from known languages.]

Similarly, blåsa and blow are related, deriving from PIE *bhle- (or *bhel-) “to swell, blow up”.

All of which doesn’t really help in answering what I thought was a fairly simple question. In fact I had to go all the way back to PIE, which is supposed to have been spoken around 6000 years ago (and not written down), to not get a good answer. I could stick with my original theory, but I guess that’s not a very scientific way to study etymology. However, I did find out a lot about Swedish colour terms, and the history of the Swedish language, for future posts.

Next week:


There are a lot of bicycles in Sweden, but they hardly ever get ridden. Why not?

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 08:05  Comments (1)  
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v37: mjäll

I was reading the restaurant reviews in Uppsala Nya Tidning (UNT) using Google Translate (GT), when I saw the following interesting description of a meal:

UNT: Rödingen (270 kronor) serveras mjäll och fin med paksoi, en asiatisk bladgrönsak, som är fyllig och saftig.

GT: Charles (270 SEK) served dandruff and fine with paksoi, an Asian leaf vegetable, which is rich and juicy.

Interestingly, when I first read it a few months ago, the translation of Rödingen was (correctly) Char, so I remain bemused as to how GT improves its translations. But dandruff?! Something one might expect to find at the hairdresser next door, but not on one’s fish! A much better translation is tender. That is, the word mjäll has two meanings, which have an interesting connection. Think about it for a minute, then read on to find out more.

I admit , I did make it a bit tricky by translating mjäll as tender; Norstedts is more helpful; their online dictionary says:

mjäll = transparently (diaphanously) white

Their etymological dictionary says:

som har en fin och mjuk konsistens
having a  fine and smooth consistency

That is, tender is a good translation for mjäll only when talking about cooked fish, but now you can see how other words, like Swedish mjöl (flour) and mala (grind) and English meal and mill are also related.

Next week’s clue:


Windmill; nice tie-in I thought.

What colour is the wind (this works just as well in English as in Swedish)?

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 14:33  Comments (1)  
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