READERS REVEAL: The best untranslatable words in Danish

A lot of Danish words don't have a direct English equivalent, but which ones would be a great addition for anglophones? We asked our readers.
A lot of Danish words don't have a direct English equivalent, but which ones would be a great addition for anglophones? We asked our readers. Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
The number of English loan words in the Danish dictionary is growing. We asked our readers in Denmark which Danish words they’d like to see travel in the opposite direction.

The authoritative dictionary of the Danish language, Den Danske Ordbog, was last week updated with 214 new words.

As is usually the case when new words are added to the Danish dictionary, a significant number are popular English loan words.

This year’s additions include cringe, disrupte (‘to disrupt’ with Danish grammar), snooze and gamechanger (contracted into a single word grammatically in Danish).

This got us thinking about Danish words that don’t have a direct equivalent in English, but probably should. So we asked for your input – thanks to all who got in touch.

We’ll start with what was by far the most popular choice. Over two thirds of readers nominated hygge or some variation of it (hyggeligt, hyggelig etc.). The word has in fact already been adopted into the English language, so it technically doesn’t qualify for nomination.

But given its obvious popularity, we’ve little choice but to accept it as the winner of our straw poll and recognise that it just has that certain something that’s hard to define with alternative vocab.

“I’m told it’s so much more than just ‘cosy’ and I try to describe it to my friends in Nova Scotia but it’s not that easy!”, wrote Sonja Bent.

Matheus, meanwhile, said that hygge is “unique, and can be used on many occasions”.

“It’s so very close to all that is Danish. Many English speaking people I know already use it but have little idea what it actually is. If this was part of the English language more would seek to understand it’s real meaning. It’s not just atmospheric, it’s lighting, seating, tone, colours and design,” wrote Scott Wilson.

We can definitely get on board with those sentiments – and we also agree with Walt, who wrote that hygge “doesn’t directly translate, is endemic to Danish culture”.

Other words chosen by our readers include sur, selvfølgelig, hils and forgårs.

Hils, the imperative of at hilse (to greet) – is “efficient and lovely – giving regards to a third party,” one reader wrote to us.

The multi-syllabled selvfølgelig (‘naturally’ or ‘of course’), meanwhile, is “very rhythmic”, another reader said. The noun form of the word, selvfølge means something that is a logical consequence of something else. It’s a word that doesn’t translate to an obvious English equivalent, so we agree it’s a good bet for our list.

Forgårs was praised for its ability to convey a concept that takes handful of words to express in English. “The simplicity of using one word to communicate ‘the day before yesterday’” is a great time saver, Salvador wrote to us.

Sur, literally ‘sour’ but more commonly used to mean ‘angry’, is “very expressive”, one of our readers wrote in to say. Perhaps you could describe a person as being ‘sour’ in English, but we’d say it doesn’t quite have the same impact as the Danish version.

READ ALSO: Five essential words you need when applying for a job in Denmark


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