One of the first words you learn as a foreigner in Sweden is ‘lagom’. In English, there isn’t one word to sum it up. Roughly translated it means ‘enough, sufficient, adequate, just right’. Lagom is widely translated as ‘in moderation’, ‘in balance’, ‘optimal’ and ‘suitable’. While words like ‘sufficient’ suggest some degree of abstinence or scarcity, ‘lagom’ carries the connotation of appropriateness.
Similar to the concept of the middle path in Eastern philosophy, or Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’ of moderation in Western philosophy, it is said that the concept of lagom penetrates the Swedish way of life. Indeed the word lagom can be used in many situations to describe something that is ‘just right’.
Living in Sweden, you hear the word ‘lagom’ often. And just when you think you’ve understood it, something happens that makes it clear that you haven’t understood it at all.
For example, a person can be ‘lagom tall’ or ‘lagom short’ but that is not necessarily the same height.
Things can be ‘lagom funny’. Although said with some irony perhaps, what does this actually mean? That something is funny – but not too funny?!?
Lagom can also be used as an adjective – ‘that jacket is lagom on you’. Does this means it fits perfectly? Or does it mean it looks good enough – perhaps even mediocre?
And finally, things can be ‘precis lagom’, or precisely lagom. A concept that is so fuzzy for those of us not indoctrinated into it, can also be really exact.
The word lagom is generally believed to stem from the days of the vikings. When the vikings would pass around the mead to be drunk, it was important to take enough but not too much. The mead should last for the whole crew (in Swedish ‘lag’ + around ‘om’ Lagom = round the whole crew). Other etymologists claim that it comes from the Swedish word for law – lag – and means according to the folk law, or ‘according to common sense’ as we would say in English.
Whatever the origin, there is a meaningful cultural significance of the word lagom. The value of “just enough” is seen favorably in society as a sustainable alternative to the hoarding extremes of consumerism. But it could also be viewed as repressive – for example, it’s less ok to be too showy about wealth and power.
In a single word, lagom is said to describe the basis of the Swedish national psyche, one of consensus and equality. Despite a shift towards individualism and risk-taking in recent years, it is still widely considered ideal to be modest and avoid extremes.
But is Sweden really as lagom as it thinks in comparison to other contries? There are research databases that claim otherwise. I’ll talk about these in a later blog.
Right now, this amount of text feels, well,….lagom.