English Could Use Swedish’s Untranslatable Words for Relationships

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Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

In the U.S., living with a romantic partner that you haven’t formally tied the knot with is the new normal. A 2013 study of 12,279 women found that 75 percent of participants had done the unmarried-cohabitation thing by the time they turned 30. But despite the normalization — it’s no longer illegal in Florida, as of this year — we don’t have a great word for talking about it. Girlfriend or boyfriend is a little adolescent, and if you haven’t gotten hitched, you’re probably not going to say husband or wife. Partner is pleasantly non-gendered, but also makes it sound like you’re living inside a law practice. What is a progressive to do? Well, as always, turn to Sweden.

Where German is a language of compound nouns — Schadenfreude is probably the most famous, just beyond Sexmonster — Swedish excels at the portmanteau, where two words are bundled together and abbreviated, quite cute-like. The one that, in my opinion, (American) English most desperately needs is sambo, which signals someone that you live with but aren’t married to. (Though it’s unlikely that sambo would be a direct loanword, since those same letters form an archaic racial slur.) My Swedish friends tell me that it’s a step above girlfriend or boyfriend, a signal of maturity, a show of greater commitment. Marcus Cederström, who’s finishing his Ph.D. in Swedish culture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, tells Science of Us the word itself fuses samman, or together, and boende, or accommodation. In American culture, “we grade our relationships,” Cederström says. “At first you’re dating, then they’re your steady girlfriend or girlfriend, and then you’re living together. Sambo is the step where you’re living together.” The behavior is there, and while Swedish has a word for it, English doesn’t. “Cohabitation sounds so clinical, and I would love to see a more colloquial term for this relationship,” he says. “In Sweden it legitimizes it more than ‘this is the person I’m dating.’”

The word signals a particularly Scandinavian sense of aloof self-determination, Cederström says. While you have to go to the government or a church or your parents to gain permission and recognition for a marriage, no stamps of approval are needed to call someone your sambo. The word has a badass history and precedent: In the early 1800s, you’d call siblings (or animals!) you lived with your sambo — a meaning that’s shifted along the way. The cohabitive social practice gained lots of steam in the labor movement years later that century, Cederström explains, with the invention of the Stockholmsäktenskap, or Stockholm marriages. By living with men but not marrying them, working women could loophole their way to greater financial security. Because, as one historian argues, the marriage laws at the time were super-patriarchal: By living with, but not marrying, their beau, they could be partnered with someone without losing their property — like a proto-prenuptial agreement, if you would.

There’s a whole range of portmanteaus for different living situations in Swedish today. Beyond the sambo, there’s särbo, a partner you don’t live with, using sär, or apart. A kombo is a friend you live with — as in kompis, or friend — and a mambo is a parent you live with. Each of these words captures a relationship dynamic more precisely than roomies or partners or whatever, and given that the number of adults living with roommates (even past 40) continues to grow, it would be awesome if our language caught up to our social practices.