Cursing is frowned upon by a lot of people, and it is easy to see why. It is just not fitting in certain contexts and situations. However, it is a significant part of a language and the culture using it. For instance, did you know that most cultures have their own unique way of cursing? This is of course reflected in their languages. For instance, Germans curse with a little help from excrements and Americans use intercourse in their interjections, while the Japanese do not use foul language in this manner at all. What do the Swedes do then? We use numbers and occasionally summon the devil.
There are several levels to cursing in Swedish, and the expressions seen as less naughty are those made up by numbers. In Sweden, bad words mostly have a religious origin and in the past it was common to amplify them with numbers, such as ‘sjutton’ (17), ‘attans’ (an old word for 18), and ‘tusan’ (meaning 1,000). All the little devils and other bad things coming after those numerals have vanished over time, and the measurements are all that is left. ‘För tusan!’ ‘Sjutton också!’ ‘Attans!’
Religious curses are not particularly rare in Europe, and where Roman languages curse by the Madonna, in Sweden we summon the devil. The most common curse is ‘fan’. It is a name for the devil and is to cursing what ‘hej’ is to greetings. It is used all the time: when you hurt yourself, when something goes wrong, even as an intensifier. ‘Fan, vad snygg du är idag!’ (Damn, you look good today!) The Swedish word for devil is ‘djävul’, and that too is used like ‘fan’ but in the plural ‘djävlar’ or ‘jävlar’. A third name for the devil is ‘satan’, which is also used in this way, though less frequently. So next time you need to blow off some steam, swear like a Swede and do it with numerals!
Joakim Andersson is a Swedish musician, YouTuber, podcaster, and entrepeneur who calls himself an enjoyer of life. He is the founder of Say It In Swedish, which is a podcast, web and mobile app, and YouTube channel that teaches modern Swedish in a fun and easy-going way for free.