'moderation, balance, just right…'
[pron. lar-gom] Swedish people pride themselves on this uniquely Swedish word - it does not exist in Danish or Norwegian, neither as a word or as a concept - according to local mythology at least (see below) - in any other language. Yet Swedes are divided as to just how positive lagom is as an example of SWedish-ness - thus lagom is a suitable example of the double edge blade of cultural discourse. It can be used in a negative way, as in - Swedish and lagom (average, drab, a bit boring); and in a positive way; as in - lagom is best (the golden mean, just right, perfect).
According to the Swedish Academy lagom simply means ‘according to law’ (lag=law) but there are many popular stories about the ‘true’ meaning of the word. In the old days Vikis would sit around a big table as a lag (lag=team) and share a bowl of mead (beer). The bowl had to go around the team (om=around) in order that everyone get their fair share, hence lagom - around the team. Other versions suggest that it was a dish of soap passed around the team (!), or a bowl of soup (which could be attributed to misprints - in Swedish soap is såpa, and soup is soppa). In another version it is a basket of bread. Regardless, lagom is passing whatever-it-is around so that everyone gets their fair share, explains many attributes of contemporary Swedish society; collectivism, social welfare, thinking of the group and not just oneself, teamwork, co-operation, the middle path (zhong yong in China; see China), being considerate, being polite.
Being polite means avoiding unnecessary conflicts (which is different to avoiding conflicts), and there are mny Swedish aphorisms that reflect this cultural virtue. For instance:
"do not wake a sleeping bear"
"better to run away than fight poorly"
"don’t throw stones in a glass house"
"is it clean flour in the sack?"
"don’t buy a pig in the bag"
Being polite also means being diplomatic, and the polite language of Swedish diplomacy can be confounding to their Nordic neighbours. A Finnish manager who had been living and working in Sweden for a year figured she had unlocked the mystery of Swedish communication. Finnish business people are renowned for their direct no-nonsense communication style, in contrast to Swedish lagom discourse. Here are some of her observations: If you are in a business meeting and your Swedish colleague listens to your proposal, and says ‘yes, we will consider it’, he actually means ‘no’, ‘Yes, but’ also means ‘no’; and ‘please understand’, means ‘no’. ‘Yes, you are right’, means, ‘you are wrong’, and ‘hmmm’, means ‘no, definitely no’.
Another favoured Swedish word for expressing diplomacy is nja - which means yes and no at the same time (take your pick). Will Ferrell, American actor often visiting Sweden with his Swedish wife, says that his favourite Swedish word is skitstövel (crap-boot), which means roughly ‘unsavoury or untrustworthy fellow.’ It is one of the Swedish languague’s less diplomatic expressions, with its roots in the peasant countryside.
A Swedish television poll in 2007 revealed that 76% of Swedish people consider lagom as positive; and 24% negative. Not bad odds considering the stigma to the ‘so Swedish and lagom boring’ epithet favoured by students at Swedish business schools, and the inhabitants of Skåne (southern Sweden) and Jämtland and Norrland (northern Sweden) and the Danes across the Öresund.
*In a recent study, Lagom finns bara i Sverige: och andra myter om språk, (Lagom is only Swedish, and Other Myths of Language, 2009) linguist Mikael Parkvall confirms that the lagom concept, contrary to Swedish thinking, exists in many languages. The uniquely Swedish aspect of lagom - moderation - is how the concept is embraced as a cultural norm.”
- John Alexander, Lagom Sisu Mañana: A Globalisation Survival Kit - 97 Words & Phrases You Need to Know to Survive 21st Century Globalisation. Intermedia Publications, 2009: pp 273-275. Read more at http://lagomsisu.com/
In Virginia Heffernan’s August 20th New York Times piece What ‘Fact-Checking’ Means Online, she relates,
"The day I became a fact-checker at The New Yorker, I received one set of red pencils and one set of No. 2 pencils… . The red pencils were for underlining passages on page proofs of articles that might contain checkable facts… . The No. 2’s came next. With them you would draw strike marks through words - and sometimes individual letters - that were confirmed with the help of reference books from the magazine’s library."
What a “quaint old procedure,” as she later describes the now-outdated process. As a self-professed linguophile (which Urban Dictionary regrettably defines as “one who loves language so much that it becomes an irritation to all those in contact with said person”), it appeals to my interest in all things academic: books, notebooks, the meticulous world of copyediting. Not to mention the cuteness of school supplies - which, year after year, continue to tantalize me, and unfathomably so. (Cue ridiculous scene from chick flick “You’ve Got Mail” in which Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks drool over a bouquet of freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils.)
This interest is partly due, perhaps, to some of my childhood heroes, Cam Jansen and Harriet the Spy. In the first, Cam solves mysteries with the aid of her photographic memory. Whenever she wants to remember something, she closes her eyes and says “click” - a gesture which now seems ridiculously annoying, but which at the time caused pangs of jealousy! In the second, Harriet loses friends when they discover her notepad filled with juicy “observations” that would put Gossip Girl to shame. I’m sure I read the book, but it’s the image of Harriet from the 1996 Nickelodeon film that remains in my mind.
Played by a young Michelle Trachtenberg, Harriet is a clever girl with braided hair. She walks around notepad-in-hand, pencil neatly tucked behind her ear, waiting to uncover the next big story in her neighborhood. I found her bold and daring, and being a bit bossy myself (I can’t help it, I’m a Taurus!), I identified with her desire to uncover secrets and set things straight.
Whenever I came home from school beaming, it was over a 100% on a spelling test. For a kid in a turbulent world, it was a way to measure control. And it came with rewards. One time, after a series of good spelling tests, my mom came to pick me up from school with a parakeet in the trunk - my first real pet! The shame of mistakes was equally as manic - I remember skipping dinner to cry after my failure to include a “o” in Luxembourg. There was just something so awful about not knowing something so apparent to the rest of the world.
I have tried to trace my obsession with words back to my childhood, and it occurs to me that perhaps it has to do with the fact that English was my third language and is now my native tongue. With a Swedish father and Finnish mother, I was transplanted to Los Angeles at the age of four. Thinking it might slow me down, my mom opted not to put me in ESL (English as a Second Language). With no idea why no one could understand what I was saying, I engaged in full-immersion: I went to English pre-school, sat in front of Sesame Street and soaked in the flashing images and words until it somehow made sense. Now, English is my best language and I can’t imagine feeling about it the way I do about my varying levels of competency in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, or German - that I just can’t get it completely right.
Along with St. Lucia’s Day and Christmas on the 24th, I rejected Swedish and Finnish in the household. I wanted to be like everyone else - and it is perhaps this youthful overcompensation, this need for control, that led me to my perfectionism today.
For its obvious connotations, I dislike the term “Grammar Nazi” but there’s no other way to describe my fixation with proper spelling and punctuation. I can tolerate - and myself play with - creative punctuations. I am also not that GOOD at grammar. (“Is it equally AS manic, or equally manic?” I g-chat to friends who couldn’t care less.) But I will not date someone who mistakes “they’re” and “their” (not to mention theyre!). Friends berate me for it, but for me, it’s a non-negotiable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started an interesting email correspondence with a love interest only to have it fizzle after a barrage of poorly spelled replies. (Maybe his right pinky spazzed out? Maybe his keyboard malfunctioned? Maybe he wrote it in the middle of the night?)
As an adult, good spelling and proper punctuation (though not as standard as they should be) go mostly unrewarded. As a copyeditor of my college’s art and lit mag I stayed up late correcting capitalization, and, two years later, comfily employed while my friends prayed every night for jobs, I edited resume after resume in an attempt to help them gain even an ounce of leverage in this dog-eat-dog recession job market. It is not a hope for recognition or reward that motivates me; there is no metaphorical parakeet I strive for. For other word-obsessed comrades I think you will agree with me - my need for perfection in this area is somehow ingrained in my very being.
I now freelance for art blogs with varying degrees of small staff size; none have paid fact-checkers and all expect their writers to have a high standard of writing. Each come with their own set of style guidelines, but most is just common sense. If I submit a typo-filled article to sites, these mistakes could go unnoticed and will reflect poorly on both me and the site. Although I don’t have a printer or a set of red and No. 2 pencils by my side, I don’t want to miss dinner due to a long, shame-filled cry session once the articles have gone live. I read, re-read, and re-read again.