From pandemic to permacrisis – crises generate new words

The war in Ukraine has caused an energy war (in Swedish energikrig) , with skyrocketing Putin prices (Putinpriser) that make some families suffer from energy poverty and food poverty (energifattigdom, matfattigdom). The situation gets even worse through greedflation (smygflation) – when companies blame inflation and raise prices more than what is motivated.

There is also an increased threat towards the global climate, and according to some people we now rapidly need to decarbonize (avkarbonisera), pay our climate debt (klimatskadestånd), and implement the doughnut model (munkmodell), an economic model with the ambition to meet people’s needs but within planetary boundaries. Apart from all those crises, scientists see a global development towards more autocratization (autokratisering), i.e. the decline in the democratic characteristics of political systems around the world, and also a growing number of election deniers (valförnekare) in countries like the US and Brazil.

Many experts claim that we experience a global permacrisis (permakris), a lasting and possibly permanent period of major, parallel crises. Maybe this is the word that gives the most accurate – and the gloomiest – reflection of the world right now.

In order to survive, we have to find a glimpse of joy in our lives. In the list, we can see that 2022 was also the year when young Swedes were partying to loud music, so-called epadunk, in their quadricycle cars, and took playful pictures of themselves in selfie museums (selfiemuseum).

English and Scandinavian word export

In a globalized world, new words also tend to be global. Words that we can find both in the Swedish list and in lists from other countries are e.g. Barbiecore, edgelord, sportswashing, and vertiport. Even popular word parts of such compounds are often spread globally, like core in cottagecore, shame (skam) in body shame (kroppsskam), and washing (tvätt) in artwashing (konsttvätt). An effect of this globalization is that, on average, half of the words in the Swedish lists have English origin. The majority of them are so-called calques or loan translations into Swedish, for instance avkarbonisera from the English form decarbonize.

As medieval English to a large extent consisted of words from the Nordic languages, it’s not always easy to assess the exact etymology of words and expressions. The floss, the word used for a popular dance move a few years back imported from the US, is actually an old North Germanic and Norwegian word for woolen thread. In recent years, quite a few words have – once again – been exported from Scandinavian languages to English. Well-known Swedish examples are flight shame (flygskam), lagom (being balanced or just right), and plogging (picking up rubbish while jogging; plogga).

So, are there any words in the Swedish list 2022 that could be useful also to English people? The Scandinavian expression väntesorg, a feeling of grief occurring before an expected loss of another person, has been established over the past three years or so. The English language has the equivalent anticipatory grief, but if you feel that word to be more of a medical term, a mundane väntesorg (‘waiting grief’) could possibly be more useful.

What is the Swedish list of new words?

It’s a list of around 35 new words and expressions that we, The Swedish language council in cooperation with the linguistic magazine Språktidningen, have published around Christmas since 1986. It’s just a small sample of words that have been frequent over the past year and at the same time, hopefully, say something about present society and the year that has passed.

We gather words by consuming newspapers, television, radio, podcasts, social media, and so on, but also through targeted searches in text corpora. Hundreds of new words and expressions are registered at the language council every year, and at the end of November we pick a small sample of words to our word list. The words have to follow certain criteria regarding frequency, novelty, word formation et cetera.

A common misunderstanding is that the words are “approved” by the language council, that they are “the official new words” and now part of “the official Swedish dictionary”. But linguists do not invent or approve words, that is something only ordinary people can do by creating and using new words. What linguists do is to detect and define those words. If they spread and are used sufficiently, maybe they will eventually end up in dictionaries. Around 30 % of the words in our lists are long-lasting enough to enter a Swedish dictionary, normally after several years of use.

Therefore, the list is also a reminder of everyone’s responsibility to create words, because we continuously need new words to express the things we want to say. Accordingly, the most important words are those that fill a “semantic gap” and thereby enable us to speak of new phenomena and other things that previously had no name.

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