For members


Danish word of the day: Bjørnetjeneste

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

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.
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, last year told broadcaster DR 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.
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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Danish word of the day: Overordnet

We'll try to give you an overarching explanation of today's word of the day.

Danish word of the day: Overordnet

What is overordnet?

While we covered the meaning of over previously (spoiler: it means “over”), you’ll also need the translation of the verb at ordne to get a sense of how to use overordnet.

Because it has its roots in Latin, at ordne (from the Latin “ordinare”) is easy enough to understand for an English speaker. When used in Danish, it signifies to sort, place in a correct order, tidy or fix something. It can also mean to take care of a problem, conflict or situation: Lejligheden sejlede da jeg kom hjem, så jeg ordnede den lige hurtigt (“the apartment was a mess when I came home, so I gave it a quick sort-out”).

Getting back to overordnet, which is an adjective in the form of a past-tense verb, the prefix suggests something ahead in a certain order. In other words, overordnet can be someone of a higher rank, such as in the military or at a work place.

It can also mean a higher meaning or context, similar to how you might use “overall” in English — an overordnet strategi, for example, can be a company’s long-term business model, around which it builds its more immediate aims.

Why do I need to know overordnet?

While it’s a good example of an adjective that is formed from a rarely-used verb (at overordne), it’s also a word that will help you to convey nuance and give sentences in spoken Danish a sense of articulacy (provided you don’t overuse it, then you might end up sounding like a proponent of ‘management speak‘).

You can some up your thoughts on a certain subject by saying overordnet set (approximately, “generally speaking”) or say that you have been thinking up an overordnet plan (“overall plan”).

Like all good “over” words, overordnet has and “under”-based antonym. Underordnet is an even more expressive word than its superior (in a literal sense) opposite, and is usually used to dismiss something as irrelevant: det er underordnet, om det tager fem minutter eller en time, bare jeg får tid til en gåtur hver dag (“it doesn’t matter whether it takes five minutes or an hour, as long as I get a chance to take a walk every day”).


Jeg forstår ikke, den overordnede betydning med universet.

I don’t understand the overall meaning of the universe.

Jeg kan desværre ikke svare på dit spørgsmål, inden jeg har talt med min overordnede.

I’m afraid I can’t answer your question until I’ve spoken with my superior.