Norwegian expression of the day: Dugnad

Norwegian expression of the day: Dugnad
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Norway's government has been counting on perhaps the most Norwegian tradition of all to fight the coronavirus.

What does it mean?

If you tap dugnad into Google Translate, it suggests ‘voluntary work’. While this translation certainly is not incorrect, it does not quite grasp the essence of this – admittedly very Norwegian – concept.

Every year in spring when the sun melts away the last bits of snow, most Norwegians get together to clean up their neighbourhoods.

This is the vårdugnad – ‘spring dugnad’. Bring your rake and meet up on Thursday at 5pm like the note in the hallway of your apartment kindly requested, or risk becoming the person that didn’t join the dugnad. (Trust me, you don’t want to be that person.)

Raking the grass while your neighbour from 5C pick up cigarette buds from the flower beds – this is dugnad

Every person living in Norway has participated on a dugnad sometime in their life. It’s work, but it’s also a great occasion to socialise with your neighbours, which – if you live in Norway – you will know is pretty rare. You and your neighbour in 5C get to bitch about the sour-faced neighbour in 3B who didn’t participate.

Plus it's usually accompanied by kaffe og kaker, coffee and cakes.

Where does it come from?

It’s an old tradition. The term comes from old Norse –  dugnaðr – with means ‘help’ or ‘support’, but it was during the 17th century that it became an organised form of work.

Norway’s encyclopedia Store Norske Leksikon defines dugnad as frivillig, ubetalt arbeid som blir gjort i ein fellesskap – ‘voluntary, unpaid work that is done together’.

This ‘together’ is key. You don't do a dugnad all by yourself, that's why the 'voluntary work' translation doesn't really convey the real meaning of the term.

A dugnad is when a sports team sells loo rolls to collect money for their summer tournament. It's when a choir sets up a cake lottery so that they can go to Italy for a training week. Or a school class trying to raise money for a class trip to Germany.  

Korona-dugnad

Today the term can also be used about a state of mind. Nasjonal dugnadsånd literally means ‘national dugnad-spirit’, which is the attitude the people are supposed to have when we are trying to nationally solve a problem.

Cue coronavirus.

To tackle the spread of the virus, Norway didn't issue a strict lockdown like France, Spain or Italy. They called on a nasjonal dugnad instead.

Korona-dugnad basically means that, for the country to get through the crisis, everyone needs to rake their part of the courtyard (i. e. practice social distancing and respect the new rules).

It's clever, because dugnad is probably the ultimate way of appealing to Norwegian's sense of reason. The big question is: will it be enough?

Some evidence has shown that, since the sun came out, people are respecting the social distancing rules less and less. Teenagers are throwing korona-fester, 'corona parties'. Sun-deprived people are flocking to the forests and mountains to walk in the sun. It's like someone saw that sour-faced 3B was bailing on the courtyard clean-up and decided they'd rather spend their time elsewhere too.

That's the thing about dugnad. It works really well when everyone participates, but if there's one too many unnasluntrere (those avoiding the work), it can ruin it for everyone.


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