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Danish word of the day: Bjørnetjeneste

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
Danish word of the day: Bjørnetjeneste

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash and Nicolas Raymond/FlickR

We're doing you a big favour with today's word of the day. Or are we?

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What is bjørnetjeneste?

Bjørn is Danish for "bear", while a tjeneste is a favour. So, bjørnetjeneste literally translates to ‘a bear favour’.
 
Given the size of the animals in question, you could be forgiven for thinking that the phrase means to do someone a ‘huge favour’, but you'd be wrong -- at least in its original use.
 
 
In fact, bjørnetjeneste in its traditional sense refers to the opposite of a big favour, it’s a favour that is not really a favour at all. There is no English equivalent, although ‘disservice’ is a fair translation.
 
An example of this could be a dad who drives to pick his children up from school every day, even though they only live 50 metres from the school. In reality, the children would benefit from the exercise and would probably get home just as quickly without the lift. So the dad, despite his good intentions, is not really doing them a favour at all.
 
The word is thought to have its origins in a French fable written by Jean de La Fontaine during the 17th century, about a bear that tried to chase a fly from his master’s nose with a rock and ended up crushing its master’s head. So, there's that.
 

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Why do I need to know bjørnetjeneste?
 
The explanation above of the meaning of bjørnetjeneste in Danish isn't quite the full story. For a number of years, it has in fact been used to convey the more obvious, but traditionally incorrect, meaning of a "huge favour". So much so that it has become a word that can elicit considerable reaction amongst language purists for whom this alternative use is frustratingly incorrect and illogical.
 
So are you mangling the Danish language if you say bjørnetjeneste when talking about a genuine favour?
 
Perhaps not quite. The regulatory body for the Danish language, Dansk Sprognævn, told broadcaster DR in 2021 that there is nothing wrong with using bjørnetjeneste for either one of the apparently opposite purposes. Its newer meaning -- a large favour -- has also been added to the Danish dictionary.
 
The regulatory body registers the meaning of Danish words by studying their use in literature, everyday conversation, social media and popular culture, meaning 'official' meanings can change over time.
 
"An assessment is made as to whether a new use of a word has become widespread. If that is the case, it is registered in the dictionary," senior researcher with Dansk Sprognævn Eva Skafte Jensen told DR in October 2021.
 
Examples
 
Jeg kommer ikke til at hjælpe dig med din eksamensopgave. Det vil være en bjørnetjeneste på længere sigt.
 
I'm not going to help with your exam assignment. It would be of no benefit to you in the long run.
 
Vil du ikke være sød at hjælpe med min eksamensopgave? Det vil være en bjørnetjeneste, hvis du gjorde det.
 
Will you please help me with my exam assignment? It would be a huge favour to me if you did.

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