I usually don’t like disclaimers but I think this write-up needs one. Swearing and insulting is more about culture than linguistics. So when I refer to Swedes in this text I don’t mean people who speak Swedish or even people with Swedish citizenship, but people who have a Swedish cultural background. There are a lot of Swedes with completely different backgrounds and they will swear and be insulted in ways that differ from those of the “natives”.
I will also make some very broad generalizations. There is, of course, no such thing as a typical Swede, so if any of these ideas fail to apply to an individual, don’t be surprised!
I guess I don’t have to warn you about the fact that this text contains strong language…
Some people claim that Swedish is one of the poorest languages around when it comes to swearing. When translated literally to other languages Swedish curses and insults seem tame and inoffensive. This also has the effect that when Swedes speak a foreign language, they usually avoid swearing even if they are quite foul-mouthed when speaking Swedish. Non native speakers of Swedish also find that using what they think is really strong language seldom gets the expected results (some examples of this later on).
This might seem to be a mystery: Is it possible that a people with Vikings, farmers, fishermen, miners, and lumberjacks in their ancestry are incapable of swearing properly? Of course not. All this is a misunderstanding based on a relatively unknown quirk of the Swedish language and a more widely known facet of Swedish culture. I will try to explain how this adds up.
I have not included any pronunciation guides or phonetics here, since that would clutter up the text too much. To differ between literal translations and translations that would correspond to the same phrase in English I have used the abbreviations lit. and tr. respectively.
In most cultures swearwords can be categorized as religious, scatological, sexual or family-related. The fact that a word belongs to one or more of those categories doesn’t automatically make it a swearword in the sense I’m using here. I’m focusing on words that can be used as interjections, e.g. “Shit!”, or to reinforce other words, e.g. ”Fucking idiot”.
Sweden is one of the most secular countries in the western world. Even though most people are baptized in the Swedish Lutheran church, few consider themselves religious, pray or even go to church except for weddings and funerals. Religion is in other words not a strong factor in Swedish everyday life. Knowing that, it is surprising that the most common curses in Swedish are religious in nature. Since there is no strong social taboo against blasphemy or invoking the Devil you would assume that religious curses would be very mild. For example: The phrase ”Dra åt helvete!” literally means ”Go to hell!”. In America this would be considered a relatively mild curse, even though religion plays a much stronger role there than in Sweden. In fact, the phrase should be more accurately translated to ”Fuck off!”. Other examples are ”Fan!” och ”Satan!”, both referring to the Devil and common interjections when something goes wrong. In similar situations you would probably use something like ”Fuck!” or ”Motherfucker!” in English.
So, if I yell ”Satan!” in Swedish, nobody will get offended by the fact that I invoked the devil, but they will still get the message that I’m probably very upset and used a “bad” word to express this. The reason for this is the “quirk” I was referring to earlier. In spoken Swedish, much of the information is conveyed by pronunciation, much more so than in other Germanic languages. At university my English teacher, who was an American, once told us that you can’t speak Swedish – you have to sing it. When swearing, this gets very apparent. The word ”Satan” contains the same vowels as the Swedish word ”bada”, meaning ”bathe”. If a Swede reads a text about Satan taking a bath, he would pronounce the vowels in both words exactly the same. If the same Swede tells someone with offensive BO to take a bath, ”Gå och bada, för Satan!” (lit. ”Take a bath for Satan”, tr. ”Take a fucking bath!”) the vowels in the word ”Satan” would be slightly different. In fact, the pronunciation of some of these words uses sounds that are not used in any other situation. A native Swedish speaker picks up these slight variations and identifies the word as being “offensive” or “strong”.
Another common religious swearword is ”jävla” or ”djävla”. It is derived from the greek ”Diavolos” and can roughly be translated as ”devilish” or ”referring to devils or demons”. The word is used a lot like the adjective ”fucking” in English, e.g. ”Han är en jävla idiot” means roughly ”He’s a fucking idiot”. The adverb form of the word is ”jävligt” and is used in sentences like ”Jag är jävligt trött” (“I’m really fucking tired”) or ”Livet är för jävligt just nu.” (“Life sucks right now”). As a noun, ”Jävlar!” (lit. ”devils”) is used in phrases like ”Jävlar, jag slog mig på tummen!” (lit. ”Devils, I hit my thumb.”, tr. ”Oh fuck! I hit my thumb!”, or on its own.
Words for God and Jesus (rarely) are also used, but are considered very mild. ”Herre Gud!” (lit. ”Lord God!”, tr. ”Oh my God!”) is commonly used as an expression of surprise or resignation. In the northern parts of Sweden you can also hear the expression ”Gud förbannat!”, which means ”God damn!” but it is not as versatile an expression as its English counterpart. The only common use of Jesus in swearing is the word ”Jösses!”, an archaic Swedish form of the name. It is a very mild curse similar to ”Heck!” or ”Cor!”.
The Germanic tradition of using scatological terms for swearing is strong in Swedish. For people who normally speak English, German, Danish, Norwegian or Dutch it is relatively “safe” to use these words, as they often can be translated literally from these languages witout changing the meaning too much.
The most widely used swearword in Swedish is without doubt ”skit”, meaning ”shit”. It is so common that it has lost most of its offensive power and is used in everyday language even by people who usually mind their language. Apart from being used as an interjection, it is commonly used as a reinforcing prefix to adjectives. This leads to some constructions that make sense as in ”Din bil är skitful” (lit. ”Your car is shit-ugly”, tr. ”Your car looks like shit.”); meaningless as in ”Han är skitstor” (lit. ”He is shit-big”, tr. ”He’s fucking huge”); or even contradictory as in ”Du luktar skitgott” (lit. ”You smell shit-good”, tr. ”God, you smell good!”). You can also add ”skit” to most nouns to express displeasure or scorn as in ”Skitbil” (lit. ”Shit-car”, tr. ”POS car”), ”skitsnack” (lit. ”Shit-talk”, tr. ”Bullshit”) or ”Det är en skitsak”, (lit. ”It is a shit-thing”, tr. ”It’s no big deal.”)
Significantly stronger are words like ”arsle” or ”röv”, both meaning ”ass” or ”asshole”. The phrase ”Kyss mig i arslet!” means ”Kiss my ass!” and is used in the same way as in English or German. Referring to people as being ”assholes” is as common in Sweden as in English speaking countries. Strangely enough it is almost exclusively reserved for males. Sometimes the word is enhanced by stating what kind of an asshole the person is, e.g. ”klantarsle” (lit. ”goof-ass”, tr. ”Fuck-up”) or ”dumarsle” (lit. ”Stupid asshole”).
Swedes seldom use words relating to sex when swearing. Some people claim that this is due to the Swedes' relaxed attitude towards sex, and that the words for genitals and sex are not considered “bad”. That is provably wrong. The slang words for penis, vagina and sexual intercourse are considered very offensive and using them in normal speech would render a strong reaction from most Swedes.
Without delving into the historical reasons, it is safe to say that there is no long tradition of using these words as interjections in Sweden, but that has started to change in the last few decades. As many of the religious or scatological words are getting less offensive since they are used so often, especially younger people try to find new expressions that pack more of a punch. A non-native speaker should probably avoid using these expressions since they are still not common enough to have lost their offensive edge in most situations.
The most common word for ”fuck” in Swedish is ”knulla”. A person used to saying ”fuck” or ”fucking” in English without a second thought should be aware that in Swedish the word is almost exclusively used to refer to actual sex. There are a few expressions like ”Knulla mig i örat!” (lit. ”Fuck my ear!”, tr. ”Fuck me with a sharp stick!”) but they are very uncommon.
Words referring to the genitals are slightly more common, but still used only for very grave insults or other strong expressions of displeasure. Some people might use ”Fitta!” (lit. ”cunt!") or ”Kuken!” (lit. ”The cock!”) instead of ”Jävlar!” or ”Satan!” when these old words seem insufficient.
In Sweden there are a lot of immigrants from Catholic and Moslem countries, places where family-related swearing is common. When these people translate their native curses to Swedish and try to get a reaction from a Swede they are in for a big surprise. An example: A man from a Mediterranean country got upset with his Swedish colleague and neighbour and said ”Jag har knullat din mamma!” (lit. ”I have fucked your mom”). The Swede replied without irony: ”Good! She really needed to get laid.”
Referring to family members in curses is a completely alien concept to Swedes. Trying to offend a Swede by referring to his family will usually result in him taking the expression literally, as in the example, confusion or amusement. The only exception from this that I can think of is the word ”horunge” (lit. ”Kid of a whore”, tr. ”bastard”), but it is a very old expression and rarely used.
So remember: There are no motherfuckers in Sweden.
With an arsenal of offensive words in your vocabulary, the most efficient use of them is to insult people. So how do you insult a Swede? As you could see in the previous sections, it is not as simple as taking your favourite insult and translate it. Efficient insults are even more a matter of culture than one of linguistics. A Swede won’t get very offended by someone suggesting that he’s having sex with his mother, and calling him a ”knullande idiot” (lit. ”Fucking idiot”) will probably just make him laugh. Foreigners are not even helped by the fact that they can use derogative terms for Swedes. The only common word in Swedish with that meaning is ”Svenne”, derived from the word ”Svensk” meaning ”Swedish”, the common name ”Sven” and the word for a male virgin. ”Svenne” is mainly used by young people with non-Swedish backgrounds, but is in itself not considered very offensive.
To get insults across in Swedish there are two important things to know. The first is the fact that pronouncing word in a certain way can convey a lot more emotion than some “offensive” word would. Just saying ”Tönt!” (no literal translation, but similar to ”Geek” or ”Nerd”) in the right tone of voice can be a lot more insulting to a Swede than a long rant spiced with sexual or religious terms. The other thing is the Swedish culture. As I said before, the Lutheran church is no longer a significant influence on Swedes, but the Lutheran ethics are very much so. A “good Swede” is honest, diligent, loyal, faithful and never complains. Any insult that suggests the contrary is consequently very offensive. The middle class has historically been very important in defining Swedish culture. As opposed to nobility, who inherit their positions, middle class Swedes had to rely on the hard work stipulated by the Lutheran ethic and their own intelligence. In addition to the qualities mentions above, a good Swede also has to be intelligent, and that is the weakest point open to exploit. Nothing gets a Swede more annoyed than being called stupid or incompetent.
Unfortunately, Swedes are no better than others when it comes to insults directed at minorities or women. There are lots of derogative words referring to physical features, religious practices, sexual preferences and female attributes, but they are with few exceptions unimaginative and pretty boring, so I won’t bother describing them here.
Here are a few situations and examples of phrases and interjections that a Swede might say in them. The Swedish phrase is in bold face followed by a literal translation and the corresponding English phrase. Use at your own peril.
Situation: Your friend tells you that she has won $100.000 in a lottery
Det var som fan! - That is like the Devil! - Well, I’ll be damned!
Vilken jävla röta! - What fucking rot!! - You’re so fucking lucky!
Nej, dra åt helvete! - No, go to hell!! - Fuck off! (in disbelief)
Situation: Your line snaps as you’re reeling in a really big fish.
Vad i helvete? - What in hell?! - What the fuck?
Så jävla typiskt! - So devilishly typical!! - Fucking typical!
Jävla skitlina! - The devlils’ shit-line!! - Fucking piece-of-shit line!
Tror du inte att den satans fiskdjäveln kom undan? - Don’t you believe the devilish fish of Satan got away?! - Fuck me if that motherfucking fish didn’t get away!
Situation: Someone walks straight in front of your car and you have to slam on the brakes.
Vad fan gör du din jävla ärthjärna? - What the devil are you doing, you devilish pea-brain?! - What the fuck are you doing, you fucking shithead?
Har du piss i huvudet, eller? - Do you have piss in your head, or (what)?! - Are you fucking stupid?
Situation: A drunk gets annoying in a bar.
Dra åt helvete! - Go to hell!! - Fuck off!
Stick och brinn jävla fyllskalle. - Go burn, devilish drunk-skull.! - Take a hike, you fucking wino.
Situation: Your colleague has managed to erase all your work from the file server.
Vad fan har du gjort? - What the Devil did you do?! - What the fuck did you do?
Idiot! (with carefully placed emphasis) - Idiot.! - You motherfucking retard! I’m going to fucking kill you, your family, your dog and your fucking goldfish and then I will… (etc.)
Apart from my own foul Swedish mouth I have learned a lot from Professor Magnus Ljung of Stockholm University and Swedish linguist and comedian Fredrik Lindström. Unfortunalely none of these fine gentlemen have had their books translated to English. Another important source if information was fishing trips with my late grandfather, who was known to be able to swear continuously for two minutes without repeating himself.