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Danish word of the day: Fisefornem

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

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash and Nicolas Raymond/FlickR

If you act a little high and mighty in Denmark, you risk being described as 'fisefornem'.

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What is fisefornem? 

Fisefornem is a composition of the two words fis, an outmoded slang word meaning “fart”, and fornem, which means something like “distinguished” or “classy”.

The combination is a slight slur for someone who is considered stuck up, ‘cocky’, or thinks themselves better than others, but who in actuality is not better at all. This is perhaps comparable to the expression of ​​“thinking the sun shines out of one's own backside” or the more simple “self-important” or “pompous”.

As an aside, the word fis has a number of other meanings. It can also mean something like “fun and games” or “high jinks”, particularly in contexts where children are playing. For example, you might hear someone say hvad er det for noget fis?, meaning “what’s all this silliness?”

In verb form, at fise, as well as “to fart” can mean to move quickly or hurry. It’s sometimes used negatively, as in fis af! (“get lost!”), but might also be descriptive: han fiser bare rundt og gør rent inden gæsterne kommer (“he’s flying around the place doing the cleaning before the guests arrive”).

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Why do I need to know fisefornem?

It’s a word that in a way is quintessentially Danish, because of Janteloven.

If you’ve lived in Denmark then you might be familiar with Janteloven or the Law of Jante, a concept originally coined by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose.

Briefly, Janteloven is a set of rules or attitudes that many Danes, as well as Swedes and Norwegians supposedly espouse. It means that it’s frowned upon to have too high an opinion of yourself and that if you do this, others will probably bring you down a peg or two.

The nearest expression in English is probably “tall poppy syndrome”, meaning a community that doesn’t let one “poppy” stand taller than the others.

If you act superior to your peers, then, Janteloven dictates that someone might bring you back to Earth by telling you there’s no need to be quite so fisefornem. It’s an insult, but not a bad one, and might even be used a bit jokingly.

A very popular imported TV show in Denmark (by my anecdotal observations) is 1990s BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, starring Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket. Every Dane I mention this show to seems to love it, and sometimes it gets brought up unprompted in conversations about my British background. I get the sense that the middle-class aspirations of Mrs. Bucket make her fisefornem to the point of absurdity to Danes, and that they can’t help but find this hilarious.

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