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Seven Danish words that are tough to translate into English

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Seven Danish words that are tough to translate into English
A 'træls' situation. Photo: Henning Bagger/Scanpix Denmark
13:34 CET+01:00
Some words in the Danish language are so culturally specific, they just don't exist in English.


Luncheon meat? Cold cuts? Cheese slices? Danes have a word that does the job for all your favourite sandwich fillings. Pålæg literally means 'overlay' which probably reflects the fact that sandwiches in Scandinavia are often open.

Bonus word: pålægschokolade: a thin piece of chocolate that can be placed on top of warmed bread, melting into a delicious minimum-effort spread.

Photo: Andreas Hagemann Bro/Scanpix Denmark


A filler-word so useful that we at The Local often find ourselves accidentally dropping it into English sentences. Altså can be used variously to mean 'accordingly', 'thus', 'therefore', 'indeed' or 'I mean', but is also a much more articulate alternative to saying '... er'.


Has two meanings. One translates fairly easily to mean economic surplus or profit. The second meaning is to have enough energy or desire to take on a task, and can be used thusly: "I'm not coming to the pub tonight, I just don't have the 'surplus' for it."


Although English words such as likeable, friendly and congenial can be used in its place, oftentimes none of these terms manage to truly say what a Danish speaker strives to communicate when using this word. It can also mean something like trusting or having a good gut feeling about someone you have just met.

Incidentally, though there is no exact equivalent to 'sympatisk' in English, there is in German, a language that also has its fair share of words that are impossible to translate.


Jo -- pronounced 'yo' -- means yes, but can only be used in response to a negative question or statement.

Examples where it would be used to mean 'yes' (rather than the normal Danish word, 'ja'):

"Did you not wash the dishes last night?" - "Jo, I did it just before I went to bed."
"You didn't wash the dishes last night." - "Er, jo I did."

However, jo can also be used in the middle of a sentence to add emphasis, and this use is near-impossible to translate.

Photo: Lars Hansen/Scanpix Denmark


This wonderful, stoic word, native to Jutland, is used to describe something which in some way is a nuisance, pain in the backside, disappointing or just somewhat inconvenient.

"My bicycle got a puncture on the way to work." - "Oh, how træls".
"I've been fined 600 kroner by the police because my bicycle light wasn't working." - "Oh, how træls."
"I was turned down for the job I applied for." - "Oh, how træls."


We're sure you've heard the word hundreds of times by now, but we had to include 'hygge' on this list, despite the fact that it is technically now also an English word. Often translated to 'cosy' or 'a feeling of conviviality', there is no direct equivalent English word to hygge.

We would argue, though, that hygge is the most translatable word on this list. In the vast majority of contexts in which it is used, it simply means 'having a nice time'.


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