When English takes on new meanings abroad

Foreigners beware: What you think of as an English term may be something made up entirely by your fellow foreigners.

Languages develop; always have, and always will. New terms and words develop; words and terms are borrowed from one language into another. My high school Latin teacher often derided English for being “impure”, and he does have a point: there are remarkably many borrowed words in the world’s lingua franca.

That has cultural and historical reasons, of course, as does the fact that German ceased in dominance in the 20th century, as English rose to conquer the world. The borrowing goes mostly the other way now, and English terms fill our lives like never before. You could argue that crappy English is now the world’s most spoken language.

An interesting side effect is how foreign languages make up their own terms in English. That’s right – importing words is not enough, they even have the audacity to alter it, and often don’t even notice it themselves. This means that in Denmark we speak words in English to each other which no native speaker would have heard before.

You have to be bilingual, and somewhat of a geek, to notice these things. Well, here I am. I can only speak for Denmark, but I would imagine the phenomenon exists elsewhere too.

I’ll give you a few examples:

Soft-ice. You know, the creamy ice cream featured in a Sundae? In American English, it’s known as soft serve, but each country has its own term, apparently, with Germanic Northern Europe tending towards a variety of soft ice.

Body. This word entered my vocabulary with fatherhood. Known in English as a onesie or a romper, it’s what you put on your baby, right after the diaper. It took me a while to discern that the Danish term body probably derives from body stocking; a term which applies only to adult lingerie, however. Oh, and we pronounce it “buddy”.

Ghettoblaster. Not strictly a foreign invention, however what is known elsewhere as a boombox the Danes refer to only as a ghettoblaster (in one word). According to urbandictionary.com, ghetto blaster was a pejorative nickname, “reflecting the belief that they are popular in poor inner-city neighborhoods (ghettos), especially those populated by black Americans.”

Stationcar. A type of car, known in English speaking countries mostly as station wagon or estate. It’s not that station wagon is an unknown term, but for some reason that was not enough. You can see the logic of calling it a station car, and most people would be able to guess what you are referring to. But that doesn’t make it correct.

Feel free to add your favorite examples.


The social contract of shovelling snow

For what I hope will be the last time of the season, I was out shovelling snow this afternoon.

It takes me 15-20 minutes to clear the driveway and our stretch of sidewalk, so the chore is not to tiresome. Plus, it has been a weak winter in Denmark, as is often the case, and I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve had to shovel this year.

Still, as a homeowner its something you do – to make sure you can get your car out, so visitors can approach safely – and because you are obligated by law. As a general rule in Denmark, any stretch of paved sidewalk must be kept clear and passable by the landowner.

It is easy to see, however, that the obligation is taken quite lightly. Nowhere in the places I’ve lived or visited in the last few years do you see 100% compliance. Sure, many people do it, but pedestrians can never be sure of clear passage.

I may not be the first to shovel (that honour often goes to our next-door neighbour), but I do try to do my duty, and I am definitely not the last on the street.

Why the variance?

There are many excuses for the lack of compliance. Ruling out the weak and elderly (which I believe may be granted exemption), most would say they are too busy with work and tight schedules. It is a weak argument, however.

The small-business-owner across the street, for instance, has plenty of time for loud building projects and polishing his Tesla, but not once in our four years on the street have I seen their stretch of sidewalk cleared of snow.

Another reason could be that many people drive more. They are oblivious to the annoyance they bring down on pedestrians, since they rarely walk themselves.

Which brings me to the final reason: something has changed in our society in terms of solidarity. That’s a big word to use for a small matter, I know. But I believe it is an example of how we care less for what others think, and more for ourselves.

The lawful obligation to clear your own sidewalk most likely comes from a time when this was the common solution to such issues: it was natural for people to think of the better good of their neighbours and communities. The social contract mandated that you did your duty to keep things tidy.

That social contract seems to have changed, even while the legislation remains.

Possible solutions

What should we do about it, then? A common answer would be nothing; there are bigger issues to worry about. They have a point. But the case still presents a mismatch which I cannot quite ignore.

There is the American option: do away with sidewalks altogether: no shovelling, no problem. Not very child-friendly, though.

There is the ‘fascist’ option: increase the penalty for non-compliance. Today you can sue for damages if you slip on a non-cleared sidewalk, but it rarely happens. You could have the police do rounds and enforce the law. Probably not the best use of their time.

There is a campaign option: through communication efforts you can remind people that this is important, and why.

Another option is to revise the legislation: acknowledging that we will never see full compliance, remove the obligation from the homeowners, make it a public responsibility, and send the bill back to citizens through higher taxes. Good luck with that.

Ignoring the reality

What amuses me, though, is a common objection to doing anything at all. Many people will respond by saying something like: “People know the rules, they just need to follow them.” While technically not incorrect, it also completely ignores the fact that currently people do know the rules, but they don’t follow them.

If the system is outdated, and the social contract dissolved, then an appeal like that will achieve absolutely nothing.

Bottom line: It is difficult to change a social tradition that has been in place for generations, even if and when it stops working.

A Frenchman in the Cold North

Photo credit: Torben Eskerod, Kongehuset

Prince Henrik, who passed away yesterday, was a dividing figure, as well as a unifying one. He was ahead of his time and opened Denmark to the world before we were ready for it.

A French noble and diplomat, he came to Denmark from France in 1967 to marry Crown Princess Margrethe, renouncing his career, nationality, and religion, and even changing his name from Henri to Henrik.

Clearly in love with the popular and soon-to-be-queen Margrethe, his eccentricity was well-received at first. But despite his sincere efforts to become Danish, in the public eye he remained, to his death, different.

A man of the world

He was cosmopolitan and well-educated, with a degree from Sorbonne and a budding career in the French Foreign Service.

He had spent his childhood in Vietnam, had a passion for East Asia in general, and spoke Mandarin. While on many people’s radar today, Asia was far away back then.

He unashamedly enjoyed life, the arts, food and wine in a manner perhaps uncommon in Denmark in the 70’s. Also that has changed, with the Copenhagen dining scene among the best in the world, and indulgence a national pastime.

For these things, and for his work as ambassador for Danish business and cultural interests, he was celebrated by politicians, the business community, and international relations.

Don’t stand out

In the gossip magazines, however, these things were ignored, or even seen as a liability. In little Denmark, equality rules, and you’re not supposed to stand out. To the masses, he primarily rode on the popularity of his wife, children, and grandchildren, and challenging the glossy image did not go down well.

Henrik was also traditional in his views on family, and never came to terms with his role. Which, in all fairness was never defined. As the first-ever prince consort in Denmark, he was expected to support his wife the Queen, but it was his own nightmare to consolidate that with his role as husband and father.

Most fatally, however, he never shed his accent, notwithstanding his sincere efforts to integrate, and his foreign language skills in general. Prince Henrik himself has admitted this regret, that he did not learn to speak Danish better, and more quickly.

Assimilation, not integration

This illuminates an important, and sad, point about Denmark. Despite our own language skills, to really become one of us you need to master the language perfectly. Which is not exactly easy. Any hint of an accent, and we’ll forever think of you as coming from somewhere else. Perhaps it is our smallness which makes us feel threatened by outsiders and defend the well-known. Or perhaps it is our social democratic culture and tall-poppy syndrome (jantelov) which seeks to cut down anything different, whatever the reason.

The obituaries for Prince Henrik are rightfully positive, lauding the man’s efforts, but all commenting on the fact that he was both loved and criticized by the people he tried to serve.

In the public debate in Denmark there is much talk of integration of immigrants. But if Prince Henrik is any measure – and mind you, he came into privilege, starting on a wave of popularity – what we want is not integration, but assimilation.

Prince Henrik died in peace, surrounded by family, and the press had backed down on their criticism of him after the announcement of dementia last year. But I believe it’s morbid stroke of luck that he did not survive his wife: had the Queen been the first to die it would have made his role even more difficult.

Rest in Peace, Prince Henrik.

Ten emotions that describe my 2017

Of death, Trump, and everything in between: an alternative look at a turbulent year in my life.

As an introvert, I have often heard that I am not wont to expressions of emotion. I even recognize a similar ‘stone face’ in my daughter at times. You should not let the apparent stolid exterior fool you, however. I choose other means of expression. Music is one; another is writing; hence the theme of this post.

On this day of reckoning, I have to reflect on a year with an unusual number of ups and downs, and no clear conclusion. A chronological approach would not work, neither would a simple list of events.

Instead, I will try to describe my 2017 through a list of emotions in no particular order, but corresponding to the first ten letters of the alphabet.

A. Accomplishment

When we bought our house four years ago, the woodwork was all pink – not our first choice against the yellow bricks. This year, I finally found the time and energy for a colour change. I probably spent around 100 hours in August and September, but now everything is shining white. All our neighbours welcomed the change, and it still makes me happy whenever I look.

B. Bewilderment

Visiting the U.S. in January was a good experience, as usual, but then not quite. Trump’s first travel ban came into effect while we were there. It didn’t affect us personally, but it was further evidence that something is not right in this country.

The actions of the president are difficult to ignore, and half of my blog posts this year comment directly or indirectly on Trump’s leadership. My love for the country has been tainted, which is something I do not take lightly.

C. Change

My parents moved back to Denmark this year, after 17 years abroad. For me, it meant a farewell to trips to Michigan, like the end of the Sydney era eight years ago. It meant house-hunting with my mom in May, and finally having them arrive in their new abode in July. We spent Christmas at their house, just a 25-minute drive away, and look forward to a new, more normalized mode of family relationships.

D. Desperation

Looking for a new job can be a stressful experience, and more than once this year I’ve had the doubtful honour of being runner-up to a good position. I’m good at what I do, but what I do is not primarily job hunting. I crave the experience of using my skills in a more thorough, intense, and value-adding manner. Soon.

E. Elation

Winning the London International A Capella Choir Competition this summer was a pinnacle of my eight-year tenure in Camerata, one of Denmark’s best choirs. To reach this level as amateurs is a true privilege.

F. Faith

This year I have been to church probably more than the previous six years combined. That’s not saying a lot, but it’s a careful, welcome change. A mustard seed, if you will.

G. Grief

Standing in the rain beside the grave of my beloved grandmother, only tears could express the feeling of loss. At 97 it was her time to go, and she was blessed with a long and rich life. Still, the memories are now irreversibly just memories, and the emptiness remains.

With my wife’s grandfather passing away just a month later, our children have no remaining great-grandparents. Indeed, 2017 was a year of loss.

H. Hope

This is the other side of the double-edged sword of unemployment. I have been frustrated, yes, but I have also been fortunate to meet many interesting people in the Copenhagen business community. I value the time spent with new and existing contacts. The positive feedback and good experiences leaves me with hope for the future, despite the uncertainty.

I. Immersion

As our children’s sleeping patterns improve, we have rediscovered time for watching movies and series, a welcome diversion and, at times, immersion.

In 2017 we went through classic series such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, and discovered Game of Thrones (better late than never).

But the most lasting impression on me was made by Interstellar. Something in the premise and the melancholy of that film touched me deeply – a feeling which was intensified by hearing music from the film in concert with DRSO only a few months later.

J. Joy

Despite the challenge and uncertainty of our situation, 2017 has been a good year. There are two very tangible reasons for that: Lily and Edith, now 3 and 1, who continue to amaze us with their love, fun ideas, contagious joy, occasional tantrums, mutual affection, and continuous development. I am privileged with a family whom I love, and who loves me back. At the end of the day (and year), that’s what really matters. Happy New Year!

Peace on Earth

In the spirit of Christmas, Jerusalem is once again the battle ground for world politics, while decisions made the past few weeks in Washington, New York, and Pyongyang threaten the existence of us all. What else is new?

Ironically, Jerusalem can be said to mean “The City of Peace”, bearing the same root as the word shalom (Hebrew) or salaam (Arabic). That has certainly not been the experience of the actual city.

When the angels sang over a field outside Bethlem some 2,000 years ago, they could be forgiven for hoping that things would now change for the better.

Only 70 years later Jerusalem was burned to the ground, however. And through two millennia its fate has been more hotly contested than most cities on earth.

When I was younger I had an idea that a well-placed nuke over Jerusalem would take away the root cause of many of this world’s conflicts, never mind the collateral damage. It’s probably not that simple, but the battle continues.

“Peace on earth, good will to men.” What did we miss? Why are we still celebrating the occasion, singing that same tune?

What happened to the promise of peace?

There is no peace on earth. The American poet H.W. Longfellow put it as starkly when during the Civil War he penned the tragic poem Christmas Bells:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end all that? The prophets predicting his arrival sure hoped so, calling the Messiah the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), or saying, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)

Even Jesus himself expressed a desire for a better way when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

But the quote above is also one of resignation. An earthly restoration of peace was not possible, even if that was what his followers initially hoped for. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” said a disillusioned disciple a few days after his death (Luke 24:21).

Killing all the children

What then remains as the legacy of the Messiah? Good teachings of how to live your life? Love thy neighbour, and all that? If that was it, was it really worth it?

Consider the massacre of Bethlehem, a detail of the Christmas story we try not to focus on too much. King Herod, in fear of a supposed usurper, orders the killing of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem.

Just picture that for a moment. Not even Joffrey Baratheon from King of Thrones could muster a cruelty of that magnitude.

It would be quite understandable if this tragedy spawned a certain resentment towards the one baby who survived the massacre from the families who suffered such a terrible loss.

Shalom incarnated

In earthly terms, it makes no sense. There is no peace on earth. But what the angels meant was something different.

First of all, peace is much too narrow a term to appreciate the full meaning of shalom. Secondly, it has a person as a focal point: God’s shalom has been incarnated, sowing a seed of love in the midst of a war zone.

But the mission was not to oust the Romans. It was not a restoration of Israel’s glory. It was not even a limited peace to the city of Jerusalem. The mission of the Messiah was grander: it was a restoration of all of humanity.

In a 16th century Christmas carol, Robert Southwell writes:

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Rome is not the enemy, neither is Palestine, or North Korea for that matter. The enemy is evil itself. Concepts such as God’s Own Country, Holy City, Holy Land, and the like become obsolete with the Christmas message of the Messiah extending God’s peace to all the world.

We have not yet seen the end of this. The joy of Christmas is not peace here and now. Obviously. But what we do celebrate is the coming of hope: The First Advent gives us tangible proof, through the Son of God incarnate, that the Second Advent is more than just a fantasy. And one day there will be peace, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The Legacy of Luther and Adventist Authority

Calling out power abuse is just as relevant today as 500 years ago.


Anniversaries always come short of the actual event. How do you do justice to the magnitude of the Reformation, which began 500 years on this day? Answer: you don’t. Not in a single blog post, at least. Others have celebrated and commented throughout the year, for the legacy of the event is pervasive and has many threads.

The impact of the Reformation on Western thinking is indisputable, and not just in the field of religion. Max Weber’s thesis on the spirit of capitalism, while disputed, remains seminal in understanding the world we live in, for instance.

Dealing with Adventist dissent

In this post, however, I will comment more specifically on the issue of religious power. It is ironic and sad that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am a member of, this issue should become one of full-blown conflict this year.

Adventists proudly see their movement as a continuation of Protestant ideals, continuing to question the status quo and search for ideas and theologies truer to the original Biblical intent and free of centuries of human degeneration.

Ellen G. White, the thought leader of the movement in the 19th century, described Luther’s adversaries with descriptions like this: “Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their work of sanctioning crime, and seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold their pretensions.” And on his banishment from the Church, she penned: “Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be seen in the whole document.” (GC, pp. 130, 134)

JanPaulsenThis is not far from the words of former church president Jan Paulsen, who recently stated: “I do not see the hand of God in this.”

His words came during a recent debate on how the world church deals with ‘dissent’. The apparent issue is the ordination of women, but that issue has become almost secondary to how the global leadership chooses to approach the discussion.

Matthew Quartey summarized it bluntly in the independent magazine Spectrum: “Our president’s seven-year leadership has been a continuous tugging at the seams of our togetherness.  He has prioritized his antipathy toward women in ministry over the church’s higher goal of mission. He has spent more time and resources engaged in this private campaign than focusing the church on what truly binds us.”

Open or closed leadership?

While women’s ordination is the battle ground, the overarching point here is authority. Any organization needs leadership, sure. But you can choose to lead like a dictator or like an apostle.


The sitting president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is an American, brought up in the system, and his actions convey an overarching goal of not rocking the boat. He pursues unity at any cost, ignoring the paradox that forcing unity destroys openness, which in turn damages commitment and encourages more dissent.

Even more alarming is the apparent ignorance of any limitations to his power. You will find this tendency anywhere, but perhaps it is especially American: If you are given any position of power, you believe you have the right and mandate to do and decide anything.

Donald Trump also acts like this, neither understanding nor accepting the democratic ideal of checks and balances. If you claim to listen to the people, then you need to do it properly; otherwise call a spade a spade and eliminate the illusion of democracy altogether.

The Adventist Church has prided itself in its ‘democratic’ institutions, but there are many limits to how much the people actually decide. And these years even those institutions are under attack from a leadership who wants to centralize, dictate, and enforce.

The Lutheran Church in Denmark, for all its shortcomings, may have chosen a better path. It has a collective of bishops, but no central leadership. Its political leader has no say in matters of theology. While the church is defined as keeping to the Apostolic Creed and Luther’s writings, nobody is able to speak on behalf of the church.

I can see the Biblical and Reformation merit in this approach. Power to the people – a priesthood of all believers – nobody is exalted above others.

Pope or no pope?

George Knight, a well-known figure in the church and arguably a ‘prophet’ for our times, has given a thorough analysis of the situation in a recent paper. He describes the predicament of the church president thus:

“Obviously, what is needed is a new policy that allows the General Conference president to initiate actions against anybody deemed deserving of such attention. Such a policy, of course, would be a major step toward papalism and unrestricted kingly power. […] The October 2017 meetings may help the worldwide Adventist Church decide whether it wants to move more toward an Adventist Ecclesiology or toward a more Roman Catholic variety.”

I am no expert on the theology of the Papacy, but seen from the outside, it makes sense as a coherent system. Putting the authority of the Church over, or alongside, that of the Bible is a valid belief, and if you hold that belief you also accept that authority.

Protestants, however, have no such luxury: putting the Bible unequivocally as the highest authority does not allow for an authoritarian system. Rome claims a legitimate authority over all believers. Protestant denominations may very well represent the body of Christ, but with sola scriptura any attempts towards papal authority in these institutions are theologically void, and must be called out as human power-grabs.

I don’t really want a pope. But if I had to pick one, I would choose the one in Rome, not the one in Silver Spring, MD.


The Road to Norway


Saying a final farewell to my Grandmother this week was also a final closing of a chapter. And it was a journey of mourning to a destination that used to be filled with joy.

There are many ways you can travel from Denmark to Norway. And being half Norwegian, I have tried most of them growing up, as we would visit my maternal grandparents for summer and Christmas holidays, and more.


I have flown to Fornebu, and later Gardermoen Airport. I have twice taken the train from Copenhagen. I have travelled by ferry, Copenhagen-Oslo, Frederikshavn-Oslo, or even Hundested-Sandefjord, where an infamous trip on a ship named Gelting Nord had many of us seasick. On that trip, I would have been younger than my oldest daughter is now. What are the memories that will shape her life?

For me the memory, despite the alternative routes, will primarily be driving on E6, the main road through Sweden from Copenhagen to Oslo. This is our family storytelling, and we have travelled the route often enough to recognize and appreciate the waypoints and notice the changes.

The first section in Sweden would resemble Denmark: flat and uneventful. But before long we would scale the massive Hallandsås, bigger than any hill in Denmark, and with long queues of trucks in the old days before freeway standards.

North of Varberg we would reach the first tunnel: an early harbinger of the mountainous land which was our destination. The number and length of tunnels would intensify as we proceeded north, and has also increased over time. As kids the sport was to hold our breath for the duration of the tunnel.


There was Gothenburg, the big city we only knew from the freeway: heavy traffic, a tunnel under the river, a high bridge across it, and potentially a pit stop at Burger King.


There was “the siren in the tree”: a resting area somewhere in Sweden where we once stopped to sleep in the car. During the night there was a break-in at the shop next-door, with police sirens waking us up. We were untouched by the event, but the location became a family landmark.

To pass time, my brother and I would have fun with the place names on the way, such as Mastemyr, Dingle (a giant lived here), Sarpsborg (with an obscure animal called a Sarp featured in its coat of arms), and later the signpost to Åmål (made famous by the Swedish film Fucking Åmål).


Later, on the very day I obtained my driver’s license, we were on the road again, and my first experience driving without an instructor was somewhere on the E6. Hills were something I had not been trained for.


As we came closer to our destination, the anticipation would grow: crossing the stunning Svinesund to enter Norway, passing through Oslo, seeing signposts to Drammen, exiting the tunnel near Lier with a view of the city, passing over Drammen, catching the first glimpse through the trees of the house, and driving up the last stretch of gravel to the end of the road and my grandparents’ house.


It was a wonderful place, with ample opportunities to play inside and outside. But more importantly, it was a place filled with love, warmth, hospitality, generosity, and fun, which my grandparents created for us and for many others.


The house was sold long ago, a few years after my Grandpa died in 2002. And the final years of my Grandma’s life were such that death came as a blessing. At 97, she had had a long and good life, and will now rest until the grand reunion at the end of time.

The E6 is mostly freeway these days, and while the journey may have lost some of its allure and now its previous primary endpoint, the memory will remain forever in our hearts.