August 29th, 2006

Sweden: Fighting Poverty, Building the Middle Class, and Swearing a Blue Streak

by Philip Baruth

Ordinarily, we can count the number of stories available on Sweden per month using the thumbs of one hand.

But suddenly today, everybody’s about the Swedes: Talking Points Memo has a nice, detailed defense of the Swedish social safety net, and Raw Story reports that Sweden — despite its relatively small size and sparse population — will nearly match the US in immediate aid to Lebanon.

Of course, VDB was there first, last night, with this commentary about Swedish swear words. Hope you enjoy the mortal piss out of it. And if you have a few minutes to kill, the audio is

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #185: When Swedes Melt Paint

Life’s a crapshoot: sometimes you lose, sometimes you lose really badly. But strangely enough, at the biggest craps table of them all — the one where you get your in-laws — somehow I broke the bank.

My wife and I eloped before I ever had a chance to meet her family, and that could have turned out really badly. She is from another country, after all, and I could have spent the first ten years of our marriage communicating with my in-laws by means of hand signals and sketches on napkins.

readers choice award 2006But how’s this for luck? My mother- and father-in-law both teach English. Even better than that, my father-in-law is a linguist with a specialty in American slang, so he really can catch pretty much anything I throw at him.

And best of all, my father-in-law’s linguistic sub-specialty is swear words.

Seriously. The guy’s a recognized world authority. Magnus Ljung is this incredibly courtly Swedish man, and he’d never, ever use any of the phrases he knows in anger.

But just everyone knowing that he knows them is what’s so effective. It’s like being in the room with a Navy Seal: you know there are forty-five separate ways he can kill you, so nobody makes any sudden moves.

Why is it so desirable to have a father-in-law who knows every Swedish and American swear word and their Finnish, Greek, German, Latin and Icelandic roots? Because much of what Magnus knows he has written down in books, books like Om Svardomer, All About Swear Words.

These books have been endlessly useful to me, because marrying someone from another country, another culture and language, means that you spend a lot of time moving around in the dark, culturally speaking, and inevitably you’re going to bark your shins on something sharp and jagged, culturally speaking.

And at those times it’s great to have the linguistic firepower to handle the situation properly.

Case in point: When I bought my laptop, I took it to Sweden thinking I could just plug it in there and put together a really important report and then bingo, just email it back to the US.

But I’d forgotten that I needed an adapter. So I waited patiently, and the next morning I must have called 15 stores before hitting pay dirt. Finally, a man answers and says they have the adaptor, but unfortunately they’re closed that day for a holiday called Pingst.

I stalked into the kitchen to ask Annika what Pingst was. She didn’t know. Her mother Birgit didn’t know. It was just Pingst, they said, difficult to translate.

But fine, whatever. If I got on it bright and early the next day, I could still have the report in on time. Next morning, I called the electronics store again.

“We’re closed today as well,” the Swedish guy said in perfect English. “Today is Annandag Pingst.”

I could feel my ears getting hot. “What’s Annandag Pingst?” I asked.

The guy thought for a second. “Well, in English, it means ‘Another Day of Pingst,’” he answered.

And that’s when reading those books by my father-in-law — who can melt paint in six languages — really paid off. Because after the guy hung up, I not only slammed that phone down, I came that close to saying “heista nupa!” which, in a phrase Swedes borrowed from the original Finnish, means that the phone could smell my bellybutton.

And I would have said it too, but it was Pingst. Or Annandag Pingst. And I thought I should show some respect.

[This commentary aired on Vermont Public Radio.]