People talk a lot about the word ‘Lagom’ – but what does it actually mean?
Lagom is the most important Swedish word you will ever learn. Used every day, multiple times, by Swedes the world over, it goes deep into the soul of every Swede. It’s part of being quintessentially Swedish.
The word lagom is said to derive from the folk etymology in a phrase used in Viking times: “laget om” – meaning ‘around to the group – allegedly used to describe just how much mead or soup one should drink when passing the bowl around in the group. This etymology is commonly accepted to be right, although some parallels are made with the Law of Jante and the common set of rules about how much one should have of something – again, things go back to the greater good for the whole group. You would take a lagom sip of the bowl, thus allowing everyone to have a ‘sufficient amount for them’ – and everyone to be satisfied. Fairness and balance.
The word itself means ‘just right’. It also means ‘just enough’, ‘sufficient’, ‘the correct amount’ (In Finnish, the word is sopiva; in Norwegian and Danish, the word tilpasselig is the most fitting, although is not used it in exactly the same way or as often – but the meaning of lagom is still engrained in every person across the Nordics). It means ‘not too much, not too little’ and also means ‘fair share’. This single little word, Lagom, denotes all of those meanings, simply depending on the context in which you use it.
There is an old saying in Sweden: lagom är bäst (‘lagom is best’), which really sums up how Swedes think and act in everyday life:
– How big a slice of cake would you like? Lagom.
– How are you? Lagom.
– The weather is lagom.
– You drink a lagom amount of wine.
– The dress is lagom.
– You have one cinnamon bun, not two. Lagom.
Lagom is positive as well as sometimes negative, it’s also the middle of the road and the average of everything. It is as it should be. It does the job, but it’s not too much, not too little.
To understand lagom, you first need to first understand the Scandinavians – in particular, Swedish cultural psyche, which is one of consensus and equality for all. Swedes don’t overdo anything, there are no over-the-top buildings, no flashy show-offs. Everything is middle of the road, fair and just the right amount. It works, just right.
People often wonder why, with the amount of cake we eat in Scandinavia and the number of sweets consumed, are we not all as big as houses. It’s because, well, lagom. Most Scandinavians won’t have two buns with their fika break, only one. One of those big bags of to-share crisps may be opened alone, but you won’t eat it all in one sitting. There will be mayonnaise on the open sandwiches, but it’s on one slice of rye bread, making it all very lagom and balanced. ‘Super-size’ in fast-food restaurants isn’t really that popular – it just isn’t lagom. We eat sweets on Saturdays – when we pig out completely. But we don’t eat them Sun-Thu, because, well, lagom.
It’s impossible to define the word lagom as a specific amount because it varies so much between people. How much cake is it appropriate to eat? How hot is lagom when it comes to your coffee? It’s a feeling, it’s something engrained in the culture and psyche of the people that is almost impossible to learn. But the amazing thing is: if a Swede asks you how much milk you want in your coffee – and you say “lagom”, they will know exactly what you mean.
How do you define Lagom in your every day? Does balance matter that much?
This post is a part extract, part re-write from Bronte Aurell’s book North, published by Aurum Books, available in all good bookshops. Photograph “lagom’ by Anna Jacobsen (North, Aurum) 2017.
Get the book here https://amzn.to/2sYz9ZW