I am always intrigued when I find a word in a foreign language that has no direct equivalent in the English language. When I come across one, I feel that I have somehow found a new way of looking at the world that most people who just speak English cannot see.
And so it was, in doing some research for a client earlier this week, I had a single idea – and I was looking for a word or a phrase in the English language to describe it. The phrase might describe the sort of contentment that a Zen Bhuddist Priest might have about life – all the time. Not seeking or being exploited. Just absorbing and giving back to the world sufficient energy, food, water, conversation that is appropriate in the moment.
On delving into Wikipedia the best phrase I could find was one from Swedish: “Lagom”. Roughly translated, it means “just the right amount”. No more. No less. There is a Swedish proverb: “Lagom är bäst” which translates as “the right amount is best”. AhHa! I thought. This is it! This is the word I have been looking for.
The word “lagom” (also spelled “lugum” or “lugom”) also exists in Norwegian. The connotations in Norwegian, however, are somewhat different from Swedish. In Norwegian the word has synonyms as “fitting, suitable, comfortable, nice, decent, well built/proportioned”. While some synonyms are somewhat similar in meaning (e.g. “suitable” and “reasonable”, “fitting” and “in balance”), many present in Swedish don’t exist in Norwegian and vice versa. The Norwegian words “passelig” and the more common “passe” are very similar, translating roughly as “fitting, adequate, suitable” in English. “Passe” can be used in every context where the Swedish “lagom” is used, e.g. “passe varm” (right temperature/adequately warm), “passe stor” (right size), etc.
The concept of ‘lagom’ is similar to Russian expression ‘normal’no’ (нормально, literally normally), which indicates a sufficient and sustainable state, for example of one’s livelihood. In Russian, the word is often used as answer to the question “how are you”. Comparable terms are found in some south Slavic languages, for example Serbian and Croatian umereno or umjereno.
Ιn ancient Greek, there was the infamous phrase of Cleobulus, ‘Métron áriston’ (μέτρον ἄριστον) i.e.: “Moderation is best”
Wikipedia further cites the origin of the term “Lagom” as “an archaic dative plural form of lag (“law”), in this case referring not necessarily to judicial law but common sense law. A translation of this could be “according to common sense”. A popular folk etymology claims that it is a contraction of “laget om” (“around the team”), a phrase used in Viking times to specify how much mead one should drink from the horn as it was passed around in order for everyone to receive a fair share.”
What a rich idea! What a joyous thought! Passing mead around the team to ensure everyone gets their fair share. It does not surprise me that the Scandanavian countries have enriched their language with this single word – when the rest of the English speaking world has no such idea in common parlance. It somehow goes with their culture.
Furthermore, as the English language has been manipulated by marketeers and journalists into visions and scripts designed to stimulate through sensational exaggerations, the idea of having just the right amount is no longer tolerated. Even the world “sustainable” now comes loaded with connotations and political nuance. The idea of having just the right amount is counter to the way the current consumerist (Western) economy works. If people stopped consuming, then the economy would come to a halt, surely?
So the tensions in the current world continue to need one thing and promote another. We have those who need to manipulate the public into buying more; into consuming more; into projecting a sense of needing and wanting more; grabbing attention in a world that is producing an ever-increasing amount of information. IBM recently published an astonishing piece of data: that “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”.
And yet we know the world needs something else. The thought that whatever you have is somehow just right requires a new way of thinking – perhaps triggered by a new word in the English Language. Perhaps Lagom is just the right word for what we need!
Not “sustainable” – just Lagom.
Wikpedia entry on Lagom: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagom
Picture: Viking Royal Meadhorn Design from Beowulf Blog: http://www.joshviers4.blogspot.co.uk
IBM Quote: http://www-01.ibm.com/software/data/bigdata/