How words matter is a longstanding theme here, and I have occasionally let a Danish word capture my attention. I am susceptible to stories about modern Danish norms, much as I was by Norse mythology as a kid. So, thanks to Mark Johanson and the BBC for bringing this to our attention:
A word buried in the history books helped Danes mobilise during the pandemic, flattening the curve and lifting community spirit.
Danish chef Rasmus Munk shocked the culinary world last year with the opening of his audacious Copenhagen restaurant Alchemist, which offers a multisensory food and entertainment experience across 50 courses and five acts. More surprising, still, was what the Michelin-starred chef did next when the pandemic brought his marathon meals to an abrupt halt on 15 March.
By 19 March, Munk had pivoted from serving 2,900kr ($450) worth of molecular gastronomy (think wood ants preserved in candy ‘amber’ and cherry-infused lamb brains) for 48 nightly guests to whipping up 600 daily portions of down-to-earth staples (such as pasta carbonara and chicken puff pie) for Copenhagen’s homeless and socially vulnerable residents.
“I put out a call for help on Instagram, and the next day I had nearly 1,000 emails from fellow chefs and everyday people who offered to drive the food out to the 14 shelters we now work with,” he explains. Hotels and restaurants also got in touch to donate food that would have otherwise gone to waste. Soon, Alchemist’s four kitchens were buzzing with masked volunteers, and the nascent social responsibility project JunkFood, which Munk had started as an experiment before the pandemic, took root.
“We all could have been at home relaxing, but I think we felt like we were obligated to do something that was beyond our own needs,” he says. “Of course, it was not just us. Denmark really came together, and I think samfundssind was a big part of it.”
Hygge – which roughly translates to ‘a quality of cosiness’ – may be the most appropriated Danish word of the past decade, but it’s samfundssind that’s really come to define the nation in the era of Covid-19. If hygge is something you practice with people you know, samfundssind is more of a behaviour towards those you might not know. Rarely used until just a few months ago, it’s now entered the Danish vernacular in an explosive way.
Like hygge, there’s no direct English translation of samfundssind. Marianne Rathje, senior researcher at the Danish Language Council, says you can think of it as putting the good of the greater society above your own personal interests. Danes believe this word has played a key role in the country’s successful response to the pandemic, and it may just offer clues for how the rest of the world can follow suit.
Society in mind
Rathje says samfundssind is a compound noun of ‘samfund’ (society) and ‘sind’ (mind). It dates back to 1936, and made an historical cameo in a call for solidarity by then prime minister Thorvald Stauning at the outbreak of World War II. Thereafter, it lay in relative dormancy until Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen revived the word at a press conference on 11 March of this year announcing the first major measures to shut down the country. She presented samfundssind to Danes as having two main pillars: collective responsibility and community spirit…