glögg, grog

Today Aina and I went to the annual Swedish Christmas fair at Harbourfront in Toronto. We go there mainly to do three things: 1) buy some Swedish packaged foods that are hard to get at other times (notably round tins of Nyåkers pepparkakor, which are gingerbread-like round wafers, and a 1.5 litre tub of lingon-sylt, which is lingonberry sauce, and which will be empty by this time next week); 2) buy some tickets in their tombola, which means you reach into a revolving drum and pull out the appropriate number of rolled-up slips of paper, and for each one that has a number in it, you can choose a prize according to what range the number is in (this year I won two, and chose a 5-DVD set of Attenborough’s Planet Earth – hey, these are all things donated by Swedes who live in Canada – and a copy of Den fantastiske Walt Disney, Från Musse Pigg till Disneyland, a Swedish version of a book my dad has in English that I read and looked at in my youth); 3) drink glögg. Two or three three-dollar cups each.

The first time I saw the word glögg, many years ago, I assumed it was a made-up fake-Swedish word. It just looked too much like a cross between grog and glug (as in glug, glug, glug, the sound of drinking a lot) with an exotic Teutonic umlaut thrown in for good measure. But no. It’s actually from the Swedish verb glödga, ‘make hot, mull’; in Norwegian and Danish, it’s spelled gløgg, because they use ø instead of ö (this is a super easy tip for telling Swedish apart from those other two: Swedish uses umlauts and the other two don’t. Icelandic does, but Icelandic sticks out because it has þ and ð. Finnish uses umlauts but Finnish looks completely different, a double-letter festival – though it does have a borrowed word for glögg, glögi).

So, if you’ve mulled all that over, you’ve probably concluded that glögg is mulled wine. This is true. It’s what the Germans call Glühwein. It’s something I was familiar with long before ever seeing the word glögg. When I was a youth, on Christmas Eve after going to the church service in Banff we would go to the house of a member of the congregation who was German and we would all eat snacks and drink Glühwein. I didn’t think at the time about what the glüh meant; we just called it “glue wine” and knew it was hot and sticky (cheap jug wine, spices, lots of sugar). But the glüh is… not another version of the same word as glögg. Surprise! It’s from a German word meaning ‘glow’. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some connection, but there are practical limits to my Teutonic etymological spelunking just here and now.

So anyway. Glögg. Pronounced not like “glog” but with a mid front rounded vowel that we don’t have in English; the closest we get within the confines of our phonemes would be “glurg.” Which sounds a bit like gurgle, which goes with glug, and also reminds us of giggle which leads us to jigger and jiggle and on the other hand there’s glee and by the way glow and glass and jug and Yule log and chug and I’ll have another mug, please, of glögg, thank you, oops, guess I’m wearing that on my scarf, whatever, where were we?

After a few slugs of glögg you may feel a bit groggy. But while glögg is spicy and alcoholic and so is grog (well, maybe citrusy and alcoholic), there is no etymological connection. Grog, which is (or originally was – it can refer to a lot of things now) a mixture of rum with water or weak beer and lemon or lime juice, was introduced into the Royal Navy (in place of straight rum) by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who was called Old Grog, or Old Grogram, because he wore a grogram coat. Grogram is an English version of the French gros-grain, which means ‘large grain’ and names a kind of cloth that has a ribbed pattern, the sort of thing often used on ribbons for medals these days. Anyway, groggy meaning ‘sleepy, dazed, intoxicated’ comes from grog because obviously if you’ve had a lot you are. Or, if you’ve had glögg, you could be glöggy, I guess.

So glögg. Grog. Glug. Don’t forget eggnog. Which is seasoned with nutmeg. Beer is beer but comes in a keg or jug. There seems to be a theme of g words sticking when it comes to naming beverages. Given the spirits of the season, I think the Irish word for Christmas may be most in tune: Nollaig (pronounced “nollig”). But in Swedish Christmas is Jul and you get the g at the start when you give the greeting: God Jul! (Said like “Go Yule!”)

Anyway, the Swedish Christmas fair starts off the Christmas season for us, a sort of prologue to Advent – pro-glögg, I should say. It’s emblematic: crowded, hot, kind of expensive, more than a little pagan around the edges, we do it once a year, and if all else fails have another drink. God Jul!

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