Lagom is a quintessentially Swedish word, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it has entered into the English lexicon. If you’re a non-Sweden and live in Sweden, you would invariably come across this word and aspects of it in day to day life: eating in moderation, living in moderation, not sticking out, compromising in life and being content with what you have, settling for neither less nor more in life as such.
Lagom was the word of the day in the daily alerts of the Dictionary.com in 2020. It gives two quotes with the usage of the word in English:
“In the bigger picture, the balance of lagom goes way beyond emotional wellbeing and interior design to become all about belonging and shared responsibility — not just fitting in, but being part of a great entity.” –Linnea Dunne, Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living
“Many of the rituals, recipes and decoration ideas that filled out last year’s mountain of hygge books would fall outside the lagom threshold. To Swedes, they’d seem fussy, a bit much. — — Richard Orange, Calm Down trendspotters — ‘lagom’ is the new hygge” –The Guardian
Dictionary.com informs that the uncommon English noun lagom — the principle of living balanced, moderate life comes from Swedish lagom, a fossil noun form in the dative plural used as an adverb meaning just right, just the thing, literally according to custom or common sense. Lagom comes from the an unattested Old Norse plural neuter noun lagu — what is laid down, which in Old Icelandic becomes law, laws, and lagom entered English in the mid-1930s.
Lagom and Swedish Society:
“There is a myth that this word stems from the Vikings era. It has to do with how they drank beer from a big bowl. They would pass the bowl from one person to another, they would lagom to each other, meaning that you should not drink too much because it has to last for every one in the group. It is a nineteenth century’s interpretation,” says Andreas Eraybar. Andreas is a Swedish and English language teacher, and linguist (studied applied linguistics and general linguistics at the universities of Gothenburg and Uppsala).
Lagom also refers to one’s life. “That is one should not pretend to be more than anyone else in the group in general, or in the context of society. You should not say you are good in something … But today many teenagers believe they are brilliant,” says Andreas.
Jantelagen and Lagom:
The evolution of cultural attribution to the word lagom is also traced to Jantelagen, the Law of Jante. Jante is the name of a rule-abiding fictional town created by the Norwegian-Danish author Aksel Sandemose.
Andreas informs, “Lagom is also connected to it when it comes to Swedish culture. In order to be lagom, you have to adhere to Jantelagen: You should not believe or try to be more than anyone else. I know a four star general, who introduces himself as ‘I have been a bit in the military’. One should not brag about one’s achievements because this destroys the group dynamics in Swedish culture. If every one is better is than every one else it is not good for the group or societal dynamics. It is important for Swedes to maintain the solidarity in the group.
According to Andreas, Sweden was one of the poorest countries in the world for many centuries and when you live in a very poor community the major resource that you have at your disposal is your neighbour. So, every one, for example in the village worked with community spirit for harvesting or to organise a wedding. Such things were always a communal work, not individual. So this is why no one would break the group dynamics by trying to be superior to others.”
Det är lagom: It is sufficient
Lagom also refers to being content in life, by living in a certain way. Living content with what one has also gave rise to spiritual poverty in Sweden says Andreas.
A Swedish woman, who had lived in New York but returned to Sweden, says lagom is a silly Swedish word. It connotes compromised living in life, being content with what one has.