6/06/2017

No, That Is Not What Kalsarikännit Means


Like most Finns, I was pleased to hear that the Finnish term kalsarikännit got hyped recently in social media, and in some more traditional media like Chicago TribuneThe Independent, and Vogue. They told us (a little bit tongue-in-cheek to be sure) that kalsarikännit is the latest exciting foreign concept that will steal the limelight from the previous year’s Nordic hit word, Danish hygge (which means certain kind of coziness), and the Swedish lagom (meaning, roughly, “neither too much nor too little”).

The meaning of kalsarikännit was described pretty uniformly by the said sources: the title of the piece in The Independent tells us that, “Finland has a word for getting drunk in your underwear at home,” and specifies in the main text that the activity is done “with no intention of going out”; according to Vogue the term means “drinking at home alone in your underwear”; and the Chicago Tribune’s story quoted a characterization offered at the website of (the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs’) Finland Promotion Board: “the feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear with no intention of going out.”

In fact, all of the above characterizations draw from the material offered at the website of the Finland Promotion Board of the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ Department for Communications (phew, that is a mouthful!); and it seems to me that it was the Finland Promotion Board which actually got the whole international brouhaha about the concept started, with a little piece of clever PR work (which, of course, is exactly what this Promotion Board is meant to be doing): by publishing emojis to describe this and fifty-five other peculiarly Finnish concepts, activities, or phenomena.

Here are the emojis the Finland Promotion Board introduced for kalsarikännit:














Pretty cool; my compliments. (Although even better is the picture you see in some memes about kalsarikännit  – you know, the one where Homer Simpson is lying utterly wasted on a couch in his underpants, with an empty beer can in his hand and other empty cans scattered on the floor.) 

Now, this characterization of the term’s meaning, making it the word for this peculiar Finnish concept of getting drunk alone at home in one’s underwear, it is not quite accurate, I am afraid. It makes it funny, of course, and is not entirely incorrect either: kalsarikännit is indeed a humorous, laid-back notion which oftentimes does refer to the said kind of activity. It is a cool concept and absolutely deserves to be hyped by foreigners. But as it stands, the characterization is at least slightly misleading and therefore the notion could use some clarification, to straighten out a couple of misconceptions. For the term does not exactly translate as “getting drunk at home alone in underwear.” Even though the term can be used to refer to that, it is not, strictly speaking, its meaning. Nor is kalsarikännit in any way an untranslatable, mystical Finnish peculiarity. Let Uncle Tero explain ....


To begin with the literal meaning, and the composition of the word: kalsarikännit is a compound word, consisting of kalsari-, which is the unconjugated root of the word kalsarit (underwear; coming to our language from the Swedish word kalsonger), and the plural form kännit of the word känni (drunkenness, intoxication, being wasted), which is probably more often used in the plural but can also be used in the singular, usually without any noticeable difference in meaning (“Eiköhän vedetä kunnon känni!?” and “Eiköhän vedetä kunnon kännit!?” (the first here is in the singular, the second in the plural, in case you missed the plural -t in the latter) both mean, roughly, “Lets get truly intoxicated/drunk/wasted, yes!?”). As to the first, kalsari- part of the compound, although kalsarit (similarly to housut (trousers)) by itself is always in the plural (for the same reason, I suppose, as “trousers” and “pants” and other such clothing articles that have separate slots for the persons lower limbs are in the plural also in English), it is used in the singular as a first part of compound words, as in kalsariasu (underwear costume), kalsarisetti (underwear set), kalsarihylly (underwear shelf), kalsarikangas (underwear fabric), etc. (Notice how all these seem best written as two words in English; one thing that some Finns find a little difficult with English is how there are so many concepts that are written as two separate words. For in Finnish, by contrast, most concepts that are compounded from two (or, more!) simpler concepts are most often simply written together as compound words, which I believe makes it easier for the reader to grasp quickly the concepts being communicated.)


So we can start making sense of kalsarikännit by offering this literal translation: “underwear drunkenness” or “underwear intoxication” (although I can see how these might be taken as referring to some pervert’s state of mind when he is sniffing someone else’s used underwear ...).

But of course we want to know the semantic meaning of the term, not the literal meaning. As to the former, there are a couple of corrections to be made to the characterizations mentioned earlier, those which made kalsarikännit the term for (the process of, or perhaps the feeling of) getting drunk at one’s home in one’s underwear. That, as said, is not exactly what kalsarikännit means. In fact, clearly, that couldn’t be its meaning, because the getting part is a verb, of course, and that would require a verb in Finnish, too. The most conventional Finnish verb for getting drunk or wasted, getting into the state of känni – and, thus, into the state of kalsarikännit is vetää (in the present tense: I vedän, you vedät, he/she vetää, we vedämme, you (plural) vedätte, they vetävät). Its most basic meaning is “to pull” (or, “to drag,” “to tow,”  etc.), but an astonishing variety of uses can be made of it in combination with other words, including vetää kännit (“to get intoxicated/drunk”) and vetää käteen (“to jerk off” (literally: “to pull into hand”), but more often used in the imperative-form exclamation, Vedä käteen! which means pretty much the same as “Fuck you!”).

More importantly, to get now to the more substantial misconceptions about the term repeated by the said foreign newspapers and magazines, kalsarikännit as such entails neither that you are alone, nor that you must be at home. The first time I heard the term used was actually when someone said something along the lines that, I do not feel like going out to bar tonight, so why dont we just stay here at my place and do kalsarikännit? That is to say, you can very well do kalsarikännit together with some other people. It can be like pajama parties, with alcohol! Also, the concept as such does not refer to one’s own home; you could just as well do kalsarikännit at a friend’s house, or in a hotel room, or in some cabin, or even in a tent.


However, both of these aspects, the part that you need not necessarily be alone and the part that you need not do it at your own home, need a few words of clarification. They should not be taken to suggest that there can be a kalsarikännit event, like an actual party (perhaps I shouldn’t have made the reference to pajama parties, but let me hold on to that idea, with these words of clarification). You need not be alone to do kalsarikännit, but the concept definitely implies that is not a big social event. The big parties that they sometimes had at the Playboy Mansion, for example, or at some nightclub with a very special dress code, where there may have been hundreds of people in their underwear, I would say, were definitely not kalsarikännit. You could add to the definition of kalsarikännit that it is something that you do either by yourself or with a relatively small group of friends or family.

Another way to put it might be that the notion of kalsarikännit involves a certain contrast, which the above cited characterizations did mention: kalsarikännit is something that you do as opposed to going out as opposed to going to parties or even to a bar. The real-life story I just mentioned, of a friend telling me that, as one does not feel like going out to bar tonight, why dont we just do kalsarikännit instead, is a very good example of how one might set up kalsarikännit. Of course, you can also make the decision by yourself well before and do proper kalsarikännit alone, that is certainly a possibility. And in fact, this seems like a point worth emphasizing: the contrast between what you are (about to be) doing and the alternative course of action that would take you out to party with strangers, that contrast should be there in your mind, at one point at least, if what you are doing is to count as kalsarikännit ... Yes, you could say that kalsarikännit requires at least some level of conscious decision making. And yet, I think that no more than just some level of it is required: that it does not necessarily need to be a fully conscious decision and definitely not a carefully thought-out plan. Indeed, that is another thing that the above-cited characterizations of kalsarikännit got at least partly wrong: it is not like you mustn’t have any intention of going out; sometimes you could just kind of slip into doing kalsarikännit. Perhaps you were at first thinking about going out, and to do just a little bit of pre-drinking (“prinks,” as some say, or if you want to learn another excellent Finnish word, pohjat (literally: “bottoms”)) to get into the right mood and perhaps in order to save some money insofar as (if) you would be drinking that much less in the bar, but then a few hours later suddenly noticed that it is late at night already, or perhaps just realized that you do not feel like going out after all, so you kind of came to the conclusion that, oh well, these prinks or pohjat have now officially turned into kalsarikännit. However, to repeat: some level of decision-making is required; if the alternative course of action of going out to party does not even enter your mind if you are, say, an alcoholic who drinks alone at home every night, or what some insensitive people might refer to as a sad lone drunk, then it is not kalsarikännit what you are doing, no matter how you are dressed.

Yes, the dressing part, I should say a word about that, too. For although, as said, kalsarit means underwear and is thus a part of the literal meaning of kalsarikännit, I would not say that they are a part of the proper semantic meaning of the term. It is more a figure of speech. Admittedly, sometimes the term is used quite literally. But it is also something that someone might make a point of, saying, amused: “Hey, you know what guys, we are literally doing kalsarikännit here!” Obviously, that would hardly be worth pointing out if it were a central part of the semantic meaning of kalsarikännit that you are in your underwear. It is not; it is more a figure of speech. So if ever you come to Finland and someone suggests that you do kalsarikännit, it does not mean that you have to take your clothes off. But I would say that kalsarikännit does imply a (very) casual dress. I mean, you might do it in a bathrobe, perhaps, or in sweatpants or shorts and t-shirt. Maybe even in a slightly more formal dress (say, if you were honestly intent on doing only some prinks and then going out, and had already half-way dressed up, but then changed your mind because your friend cancelled or something); but I would say that if you are fully dressed for partying outside, then you would at least need to throw away some pieces of clothing, say the jacket and the tie and the shoes, and open a few buttons of the shirt, to turn it more into kalsarikännit.

By Way of Postscript:


Incidentally, as I have been explaining the proper use of a word like this here, it brings to mind another funny but mistaken English translation of a Finnish term which got some attention in the internet a few years back. The word is pilkunnussija, which is a very dramatic and funny term because it would translate literally as “comma fucker.” Here the literal translation led to an even more serious misunderstanding than those involved with kalsarikännit, however: the people who presented the case to international audience online seem to have thought that pilkunnussija is a sort of dirty equivalent to the English term “Grammar Nazi”; but that, I can assure you, it is not. Actually, pilkunnussija  is only a vulgar variation of a much older term pilkunviilaaja (literally: “comma filer”), and translates quite easily and directly as “nitpicker” or “pettifogger.” The only thing that those translations miss is the vulgarity of the term. But I suppose you could easily reach that side of the term too, if you derived from “pettifogger” some idiotic variant like “pettifucker” and started using that word the same way you would use “pettifogger.” In any case, pilkunnussija is usually used in quite other than grammatical connections. Of course, it could still apply to the present case.

11 comments:

  1. quite funny, and well written.

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  2. What if I announce my Kalsarikännit on social media? Technically I am alone in my underwear (in opposition of going out), but it still becomes a social event (albeit virtual)...

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  3. Many kiitos for the explanation. Finnish is beautiful!

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  4. The amount of useless details is hiding the point.

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  5. Thanks for the info, I'll be sure to ruin the fun by crushing someone's cute pseudo-linguistic factoid at the next opportunity lol. Also, incidentally, I've literally never heard the term "pettifogger" before...maybe it's a British thing...Anyway, good work!

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  6. There ought to be a Finnish word for "not quite accurate, and not entirely incorrect either".

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  7. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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  8. Thanks much for the clarification - so the book that is titled "Pantsdrunk" in English should technically be "Underpantsdrunk" and you needn't be home nor alone to partake - LOL

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  11. Have you ever been at a party and found yourself trapped in a corner being browbeaten with someone's lengthy and boring anecdote?

    It feels like the above lecture.

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