What is spektakel?
You might be forgiven for thinking a spektakel is a spectacle, but it’s not. At least, not any more.
The main modern use of the Danish word spektakel is to describe something loud or noisy. This could be anything from a car with a broken exhaust to local roadworks to the Distortion festival. Basically, anything so noisy as to disrupt your day.
A spektakel may also be used to describe a noisy disturbance, like an argument in the apartment underneath yours, or a rowdy parliamentary exchange (more common in the United Kingdom than Denmark). The colloquial British English word “racket” for noise is perhaps a good equivalent for this use.
The above can also be extended to lean more or on the disturbance itself than on the noise it generates. For example, you might ask someone not to make a spektakel at a family event by getting into a heated discussion with a relative with opposing political views. It could also be used in relation to controversy — a divisive new law passed by the government could result in a spektakel in the form of public protests.
Why do I need to know spektakel?
Spektakel is a rare example of a Danish word that is a “false friend”: it looks like an English word but has a different meaning to its counterpart, potentially resulting in confusion. Another example of this is eventuel, which in Danish means a possible or potential outcome or decision — and not “eventually”.
It has, however, not always been the case that the English and Danish versions of spektakel/spectacular diverge so much.
In generations passed, the meaning still signified in the English “spectacular” of something that is eye-catching or worth seeing — which is descended from Latin — was also how spektakel would have been understood in Danish.
Its meaning has evolved from generation to generation, however, perhaps because of parents calling a memorable event a spektakel but children only remembering it for making so much noise. This leads us to the new meaning of spektakel in common use today.
Det var godt nok en spektakel, da alle vennerne kom op at skændes til Thanksgiving-middagen.
It was a bit of a riot when the group of friends all ended up arguing during their Thanksgiving dinner.
Kommunen har været i gang med at lægge nye rør til kloaksystemet i godt et halvt år. Der har bare været en spektakel hver dag.
The city has been laying new pipes for the sewage system for almost six months. There’s been a racket outside every day.