Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Denmark's enemy

No, not Islam, not this time anyway, but Sweden. From The Times:

Not since Shakespeare declared that something was rotten in the state of Denmark have the inhabitants of that fair country been so disgruntled. A Copenhagen University academic has just produced some research that has shaken every Dane to his irreducible Viking core. He analysed all the products in an Ikea catalogue according to name. What he found was startling. It seems that Sweden's all-conquering furniture firm quite shamelessly names its fanciest futons, tables and chairs after Swedish, Finnish or Norwegian places, while reserving Danish place names for doormats, draught-excluders and cheap carpets.

Min gud, as they say in Danish. That has set the kat among the pigeons. The Danish press has accused Ikea of “symbolically portraying Denmark as the doormat of Sweden”. Ikea's response is that the Danes “appear to underestimate the importance of floor-coverings”. I can't work out whether that retort is a genuine attempt to smoothe ruffled feathers, or yet another sly Swedish dig at their neighbours. Either way, it hasn't helped to mollify the seething Danes.

But could anything do that, at this late stage in their centuries-old rivalry? It was the editor of the Danish paper that exposed this “Swedish imperialist scandal” who put his finger on what is surely the real reason for Danish disquiet. It's a national inferiority complex, pure and simple. “The Swedes,” he explained, doubtless through gritted teeth, “are so perfect at everything.”


I love a good feud. Quite apart from its value as a source of creative impetus (the world's stock of novels, plays, films and operas would be lamentably depleted if human beings didn't feud) I honestly think that it brings people together. Just consider the English and the French. Because of our intense mutual antipathy we spend far more time obsessing about each other than we would if we got on tolerably well - like, say, the English and the Portuguese. After all, to do a good hatchet-job on someone else's taste in clothes, food and politics - let alone a scornful debunking of their military record stretching back to the 13th century - you have to know them pretty well.

Indeed, some of the most ferocious feuds, fought out week after week in the pages of organs such as The Times Literary Supplement, are between academics working in such esoteric fields that their detested rivals are the only people on the planet who have any notion of what the argument is all about. Or between highly intelligent but narrowly-focused people working in semi-closed communities such as Oxbridge colleges or cathedral chapters - inward-looking establishments in which a single perceived slight can be magnified into a grudge that festers for years and poisons all contact between the parties. As Byron said: “Men love in haste but detest at leisure.”

But the feuds that fascinate me most are those that have absolutely no rhyme or reason behind them - the ones that mirror Tom Brown's famous old rhyme:

I do not love thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.

The trouble with the feud between the Swedes and the Danes is that (as with the Americans and the Canadians, or the English and the Scots) the antipathy is too obviously fuelled by a perception that one side has historically used its greater muscle to lord it over the other. Similarly, there's no mystery as to why the MacDonalds hate the Campbells, or the Poles hate the Germans.

A truly gripping feud, by contrast, must have no discernible cause. Or, if it does have one, the cause must be buried so far back in time that nobody can remember what it was. Or it must be so irrelevant to either side's present-day needs as to be hilariously redundant. Remember Jorge Luis Borges's description of Britain and Argentina going to war over the Falklands? “Two bald men arguing over a comb.”

What twaddle. The Falklands was British territory and the bloody Argies had no business trying to steal it. They got what was coming. Typical foreigner, that Borges - always bloody wrong. Was he a baldy man?

Posted on 03/12/2008 2:20 PM by Mary Jackson
12 Mar 2008
Norman Berdichevsky

       Few neighboring countries were at war so often with each other from the Middle Ages until the end of the Protestant reformation as Sweden and Denmark--in much the same way as France and Germany from Napoleonic times until World War II. For most Americans this comes as a surprise, since both countries along with the rest of Scandinavia enjoy a modern image of peaceful states that enjoyed neutrality throughout most major modern European conflicts. The many similarities in culture, language, religion, the common reputation as "welfare states" with advanced social legislation and a social security net to prevent outright deprivation have obscured much of the same differences in outlook that distinguish Americans and Brits in spite of a long common history and shared institutions.
       Like the differences that led to the American Revolution and the final separation from England in spite of the presence of a large contingent of loyalists who remained loyal to their king and oath of allegiance, Danes and Swedes could not agree on the form of the union between them. The differences separating them did not constitute an ocean but a common land boundary and narrow stretches of water. What we call Southern Sweden today is known by the regional name of Skåne (with its own flag). It was both in terms of physical geography, landscape, soils, vegetation and climate a part of the Danish Kingdom from the earliest appearance of a state embracing Jutland (Jylland), Skåne across the Øresund and the main Danish islands Funen, (Fyn) and Zealand (Sjæland), lying amidst the two "Belts" in the Kattegat. 
       Like the case of the English governors and the American colonial houses of representation, the Swedish and Danish nobility were diverse sources of power. Growing resentment of the Union led to the desire for renewed Swedish independence and the eviction of Danish control of Skåne, a move that would award Sweden a share in the control of the narrow straits, through which European maritime traffic passed from the North Sea and the Baltic.

It also meant the end of Danish monopoly. With two such contrasting visions of their future and status, the union collapsed and war followed war from 1434 until 1720. Even with Denmark's ability to mobilize allies, most notably the Russians, the results were almost continuously successful for Sweden, and a terrific blow to Denmark's prestige and image as the leading Scandinavian power.
       The result was also a strong national enmity that built upon existing resentments. A final blow was dealt when Sweden picked the winner in the Napoleonic wars and Denmark was forced to cede control of Norway to its bitter enemy, adding a final humiliation and promoting Sweden to the undisputed position as the "big brother." This diplomatic victory was bitterly resented in both Denmark and Norway as an example of Swedish imperialism.

      Although Denmark proper (Jutland, Fyn and Zealand) was never conquered by Sweden, it too suffered humiliation by its archrival as a result of constant military defeats that eclipsed its early domination of the Baltic. This ignominy served as a cause of irredentist hopes for centuries and prolonged the hatred between the two countries.

To this day, the Danish royal anthem sings of a naval victory of their King Christian IV over the Swedish fleet in 1644. By contrast, the Swedish anthem never even mentions the name of the country but exclaims, "I will live and die in 'Norden'" (a term, like Scandinavia, referring to the entire region).
       World War II added a modern chapter when Denmark and Norway fell to a German invasion, while Sweden maintained a profitable neutrality and allowed transport of both German troops and German-controlled Norwegian and Finnish raw materials across its territory issues, which created an additional layer of resentment, rivalry and competitiveness.
       The Danes have always had a reputation among their Scandinavian colleague as being much more European, especially because of French influence, and therefore are regarded as somewhat decadent, less puritanical, lackadaisical, sloppy, and more interested in good food and pursuing beautiful women than the aloof, industrious, neat, well-groomed, rational (the Danes would add "arrogant") Swedes--or the athletic, honest, nature-loving and athletic Norwegians. Of course, like all stereotypes, there is both exaggeration and enough of a grain of truth in these images to convince observers to look for confirmation. 
       The popular press, especially the mass circulation tabloids, delights in playful teasing and taunting the older brother rival that sometimes reaches grotesque proportions. Although educated people regard this pandering to old prejudices as the cheapest form of sensationalism, its continued emotional long-term appeal cannot be doubted.

A favorite part of this teasing is the double-meanings employed in manipulating the two closely related languages. Danes and Swedes will often prefer to converse in English rather than speak their own languages with each other. The written form is sufficiently similar so that the general meaning of texts can be generally understand but differences in intonation, pronunciation and the distinct different meanings of closely sounding words provide an endless form of humor. Swedes have a special "Sj" sound and most Danes use a pronounced glottal stop that are difficult for non-natives to imitate.
       In 1944, a Dane and a Swede, Ellen Hartmann and Valfrid Palmgren Munch-Petersen, wrote a special dictionary titled Farlige ord og lumske ligheder i dansk og svensk (Dangerous words and awkward similarities in Danish and Swedish) that should be read by anyone needing to master the neighboring language and avoid embarrassing mistakes. One can imagine the reaction of an American woman to an expression like: "I came by yesterday to knock you up but nobody was home." For an Englishman until circa 1970 this simply meant: "I came by and knocked on the door to see if you were home."
       All this may seem like making a mountain out of a molehill for many foreign observers who imagine that the Scandinavian peoples are so similar they should have long ago buried the hatchet. Indeed, all the Scandinavian states remain among the most stable in the world politically. They cooperate in many economic and social areas such as the joint SAS airline and are culturally, socially and linguistically similar, but maintain a distinct sense of political separateness.

       History and especially geography has determined much of their foreign policy and prevented them from following a common one or joining in an alliance. Norway and Denmark joined NATO due to their inability to maintain their neutrality in World War II, while Sweden continues to be neutral. All three jealously guard their independence. Denmark's close proximity and border conflict over Schleswig (Slesvig) prevented Norway and Sweden from considering a Scandinavian alliance before the World Wars with their prospect of German expansionism and revenge.

       Norman Berdichevsky

13 Mar 2008
Oliver P Camford

Sorry Norman, but 'knocking up' hasn't been known in English as a meaning for being woken up for at least two-hundred and fifty years - if it ever was (which I, and others, doubt for this seems to be an American myth).

'Knocking up' refers to the process of weaving when multiple knots in the tied in threads passed the shuttle point simultaneously and caused the loom to jump with a distinct and audible knocking sound and was present in English some eight hundred years ago. Since weaving was associated with the thread of life weavers' wives who became pregnant were, by association with the final moments of coitus, referred to as being 'knocked up'.

At the time of the Industrial Revolution in England those people who went round the houses banging on the doors of the mill workers in order to rouse them for their shifts at the manufactory were jocularly referred to as 'knockers-up' due to the popular myth that they promptly occupied the warm beds of the factory workers abandoned spouses and, in their enthusiasm, knocked the bed-heads against the wall. This, even at the time, was an example of the mordant humour of the English working class and an example of how earlier language forms persisted.

In the weaving mills of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, tied-in threads on the looms - to facilitate pattern change - was still the norm. Hence the phrase 'tied in' in English and 'knocked up' to describe a loom in the ecstasy of change from one pattern to another.

Surely it is easy to see how the phrase became associated with human sexual activity - over a thousand years ago. Must I spell it out (and there's another phrase which has extremely earthy connotations), or do you see where I'm coming from (and I wish I hadn't phrased it quite like that!).


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