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Danish word of the day: Nemlig

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

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash and Nicolas Raymond/FlickR

A very frequently-used Danish word, nemlig translates very approximately as "exactly" but is much more flexible than the English equivalent.

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What is nemlig? 

Nemlig does not mean “easily” (even though nem means “easy”). Neither does it mean “namely”, even though it sounds pretty similar to the English word.

So what exactly is the meaning of this adverb, which is so frequently used by Danes to the point that it’s almost a filler?

Its closest translation is probably “exactly”, but this depends on context. It’s better to think of nemlig as a word which expresses confirmation of or justification for a preceding statement: jeg valgte ikke at købe bilen, den var nemlig for dyr til mit budget: “I decided not to buy the car [because] it was too expensive for my budget”.

Why do I need to know nemlig?

It's one of those words that will help you sound more Danish in an instant. Unfortunately, knowing when to use it isn’t always straightforward.

You can use nemlig on its own to say "yes, exactly/that's right". You can say ja nemlig (yes, exactly) or nej, det er det nemlig ikke when responding to a negated statement:

Det er varmt i dag! Ja, det er det nemlig (It's warm today! – Yes, it is) but Vi vil ikke være for sent – Nej, det vil vi nemlig ikke (We don't want to be too late – No [we don't], exactly).

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Be cautious about this, though: There’s another word that has some similar uses to nemlig and is more like the English “precisely” or "exactly" – namely, præcis.

If you want to make a sentence even more emphatic than just saying nemlig, you can say lige præcis which means “just exactly” to translate it a bit clumsily.

Præcis can be used in most of the same ways as the English "exactly", which means it’s often (but not always) interchangeable with nemlig.

The difference between the two is a bit hard to define and knowing which one to use can come down to whether you’ve heard and remembered them being used in similar contexts in the past.

However, a rule of thumb is that nemlig confirms something that’s just been said. Præcis can do this too, but can also introduce a statement that hasn’t yet been discussed in the conversation.

For example, du lyder præcis som min far (you sound exactly like my dad), would not normally make sense if you replaced præcis with nemlig, unless someone else has already made this assertion and you want to agree: han lyder præcis som min far – ja, det er nemlig det, han gør (“he sounds exactly like my dad” – “yes, that’s exactly what he sounds like”).

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Make sense? If so (or even if not), there’s bad news: a third word, netop, can also be switched with nemlig in some cases, but not others.

Netop usually means something close to “just now”, as in klokken har netop slået tolv (“the clock has just struck twelve”). You can also say jeg gør det netop nu (“I’m doing it right at this moment”).

However, you might also hear it in a phrase like det er netop problemet (“that’s just the problem”) where det er nemlig problemet (“that’s exactly the problem”) would be understood to mean the ‘exact’ same thing.

 

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