Might Be Just Right
by Doc Searls
At LinuxWorld in Boston earlier this year, I got together with an old Swedish friend. She’s a nurse, not a technologist, but she was curious about my work and the conference that brought me to town. Somewhere in the midst of my explanation of Linux and its virtues, she said, “Ah, Linux is lagom”. She explained that lagom is a Swedish term that conveys a sense of balance, proportion and appropriateness. “Not too much, not too little…just right.”
When I told her that Linus Torvalds’ first language and surname were both Swedish, she said, “Well of course. There you go.” (I’m half-Swedish myself, though I’m not sure that matters.)
So I put the question “Is Linux logom?” to The Man Himself in an e-mail. He debugged my spelling and declined to commit:
Lagom, with an “a”.
And yes, it means “just right”, in the sense of “not too much, not too little”. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagom
Then he added, in a following e-mail:
They still end up confusing “lagom” with finding the “optimal” amount. That’s pretty much missing the point. It’s not that something is “lagom” because it’s the best possible or “optimal”. Quite the reverse. Something being “lagom” very much involves not caring too much about what the optimal amount even is. Or possibly questions where “optimal” simply doesn’t make sense.
So I began checking other sources. The best I found was from “In Other Words”, published in AskOxford, published by the Oxford English Dictionary (www.askoxford.com/worldofwords/wordfrom/otherwords). It lists lagom among a handful of “the most insightful, intriguing, and satisfying expressions on the planet-for which there are no English equivalents”. It says:
Swedish commentator Dr Bengt Gustavsson argued that the lagom mentality can be seen as the trait that gives Swedish society its characteristic stability and yet an openness to external influences. The word alludes subconsciously to the avoidance of both conspicuous success and humiliating failure, which is deeply ingrained in the Swedish psyche. It is the inclination among Swedes to shun ostentation, accept modest rewards, be good team players-to fly beneath the radar.
Beneath the Radar was also the title of Bob Young’s book about starting and guiding Red Hat to success. Coincidence?
Perhaps characteristically, Linus adds these final words to the matter: “but whether that applies to Linux I have no idea.”