Culture & ideas Ideas

Tower of Babel: Don't act Swedish!

14 August 2009 Paris

What's a Swedish curtain and does if have to do with a Swede in Poltava? With Sweeden holding the EU rotating presidency, serveral European stereotypes and phrases that are sure to be bandied around.

During the presentation of his new football shirt in Los Angeles on 17 July, the Spanish could have told the Swedish former Inter Juventus striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic 'no te hagas el sueco' (Don’t act Swedish). The famous expression means 'don’t pretend that you don’t understand'; he knew he'd shortly be moving to Barcelona for the tidy sum of 45 million euros! Just as the Malmo-born footballer is not your typical Viking beauty (he has Bosnian-Croatian heritage), in this sentence, the word 'sueco' does not technically mean Swede. The Latin word soccus, or zoccolo in Italian, means a piece of wood – so in other words, the expression can also translate to 'don't act like you're a bit thick'.

It is the good looks of the Swedes is which is reknowned in Germany. Germans to cry out in admiration 'Alter Schwede!' (Old Swedes), which is another way of saying 'Oh my God!' The expression originates from the Thirty Years’ War, during which old Swedish soldiers were hired to train the Prussians. If an incautious German proves too insistent, he might find himself faced with the 'Schwedische Gardinen' (Swedish curtains), another term to denote prison. There are no Sweeden-related expressions in English, but the tabloid media are well fond of Ul-ri-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka, as former Swedish weather and TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson is known as in the UK, where she remains a celebrity. In Poland, should a beautiful woman not meet expectations, one might ask 'To cóż że ze Szwecji' (what does it matter if she comes from Sweden?), meaning 'who gives a damn'. If she turns out to be downright ugly, a Russian would not hesitate to disappear like a Swede at Poltava (Пропал, какшведпод Полтавой), a reference to the fleeing Swedes after their crushing defeat of the Swedes in the war against Russians in the seventeenth century!

Finally, the Swedes are not just cold, distant beauties: they also have a good sense of humour. The average Swede, chatting away on their Ericsson mobile in their Volvo or SAAB cars with their Golden Retriever in the back whilst listening to Abba could live like a Svensson, in homage to one of the most common surnames in Sweden.