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Danish word of the day: Hyggeracisme

Today’s word of the day has been around a while but is an important part of modern debates around identity in Denmark.

What is hyggeracisme? 

The word hyggeracisme is a compound of two words: hygge and racisme.

Hygge is quite possibly the most famous Danish word outside of Denmark and the one with the longest conversation about its actual meaning, because it relates to a feeling or a mindset that doesn’t have an exact English equivalent.

We won’t go into it in too much detail here, but hygge can be used in almost any situation that makes you feel comfortable, happy and as if you’re having a nice time. It can also be used as either a noun (hygge), verb (at hygge) or an adjective (hyggelig).

Situations in which hygge might be referenced can include (but are not limited to) a dinner party with friends, a walk in the forest with family, a cup of coffee to catch up with a former colleague or visiting a Christmas market.

READ ALSO: It’s official: ‘hygge’ is now an English word

Racisme means exactly what you think it means: racism.

Why do I need to know hyggeracisme?

So why are these two apparently very different things combined into a single Danish word, and why is it important to understand hyggeracisme?

Just by talking about what hyggeracisme means, we’re touching on a complex and longstanding debate that takes in discussions about identity, free speech and what constitutes discrimination, and it’s not something all Danes agree on by any stretch.

So we can’t comprehensively cover all the arguments, theories and points of view here. But we’ll try to explain what the concept of hyggeracisme is.

The dictionary defines it as “using racist words or expressing prejudice about persons of other ethnic backgrounds in a way that one considers to be funny or unproblematic, but which is hurtful or offensive towards those one is talking to or about”.

This might mean using pejorative words like neger (literally, “negro”, the word became socially unacceptable in Danish later than it did in English) or perker (a very offensive word which refers to people of colour, often of Middle Eastern heritage, but which has been reclaimed in some contexts by minority communities).

If these words are used in what appears to be a light-hearted, joking way which does not directly attack the subject, the speaker might believe or argue that they are not being racist. The rejection of this is that it’s hyggeracisme: still using an offensive word, othering people and potentially harming them, under the guise of not meaning the word ‘seriously’.

Another form of hyggeracisme is ‘accidental’ racism – a real-life example of this being the criticism recently received by broadcaster TV2 when a presenter compared Moroccan footballers and their families to monkeys during a light-hearted segment on a news programme.

The presenter and the broadcaster both apologised unreservedly for the incident, but the fact that it occurred at all is – arguably – evidence that hyggeracisme is still sometimes seen by some people (in this case, people working for a national broadcaster) as not being harmful.

An argument against hyggeracisme is that it shows a lack of understanding for how people of other backgrounds might feel or view the use of offensive language towards them – even if the speaker’s intention isn’t to be racist.

Meanwhile, people who call out hyggeracisme risk being accused of being krænkelsesparat: lacking humour and being more interested in being politically correct than in the discussion at hand.

It’s notable that hyggeracisme is not unique: hyggesexisme is also often talked about in Denmark. So there is clearly still a discussion to be had about discriminatory language in its various forms.

Member comments

  1. Michael, hyggeracisme translates best in English to “one manifestation of systemic racism.” And, yes, it show up in many people who are the first to say, “There’s not a racism bone in my body.”

    Perhaps that is helpful to you.

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For members


Danish word of the day: Idræt

A sporty word that doesn’t quite mean “sport”, but does tell us something about shared Scandinavian identity.

Danish word of the day: Idræt

What is idræt?

Idræt means “sports” even though the word sport exists in Danish. 

In modern Danish, you’ll most likely hear it as the name of a school subject (the equivalent of P.E.), but idræt has been around since the nineteenth century and comes from the Icelandic íþrótt, which also means “sport”. 

The Icelandic íþrótt originated in the Old Norse íþrótt (“art, craft, skill, sport”) which is itself a compound of  (“work, diligence, id”) and þrótr (“bravery, strength, powers”).

So why not just sport? Well, simply put, sport is not Scandinavian in origin. The English word “sport” comes from the Old French desportdeport which meant “game, amusement” – think of the games in Olympic Games. 

Íþrótt was instead borrowed from Icelandic as a more Nordic alternative to the English-French sport during the heyday of a movement called Nordism, which stemmed from Scandinavism, also known as Scandinavianism or pan-Scandinavianism. 

Why do I need to know idræt?

So what was Scandinavism? In short, it is the idea that the Scandinavian countries should be closer, perhaps even one country. The movement was primarily literary, linguistic and cultural, promoting a shared Scandinavian cultural heritage.

Scandinavism was started by Danish and Swedish university students in the 1840s, in the southern Swedish region of Skåne, and paralleled the unifications happening in Italy and Germany during the same period. It lost its momentum after Denmark lost the Second Schleswig-Holstein War in 1864 and the King of Sweden and Norway declined to help the Danes in the conflict.

The movement also promoted the close relation of the Scandinavian languages, although not necessarily a new common “Scandinavian” language.

It should be noted here that Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are considered mutually intelligible, although any Swede spending a weekend trying to talk to Danes in Copenhagen may disagree with that assessment.

Nevertheless, some linguists go as far as to say the three are a language continuum, or in other words, dialects of the same language: the North Germanic Dialect Continuum.

Icelandic and Faroese are different enough to be regarded as separate languages, but they should perhaps also be included as belonging in terms of culture.