How a children’s book propelled a new word into the Swedish dictionary

Lynda Harris | December 12, 2018

Kivi and the Monster Dog, published in Sweden in early 2012, is a hilarious children’s story about a strong-willed child who is determined to get a dog for their birthday. But it wasn’t just the storyline that made the book quickly and historically famous in Sweden. The author, Jesper Lundqvist, boldly used a new gender-neutral pronoun, hen, instead of han or hon (he or she).

Image, Cover of Swedish children's book Kivi & Monsterhund.

Kivi & Monsterhund. Image by Olika

Apparently the media were looking for news that week — the book, with its outspoken author, was eagerly picked up and sparked lively debate. Bloggers continued to give hen life. By late 2012, the word had stirred up so much publicity that Finland’s largest Swedish-language newspaper, Hufvudstadsbladet, announced that ‘hen is here to stay’.

A provocative ad by the Norwegian airline used the slogan The businesshen’s airline — adding to public awareness of the word. Eventually, some government agencies began using hen in official documents.

Image, slogan for Norwegian Airlines: 'The Businesshen's Airline'

An award-winning ad for the Norwegian airline using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ — a play on the slogan of rival airline SAS.

The idea of hen was first suggested in academia in 1966, but created little more than a murmur at the time. The word resurfaced in 1994 and again in the mid to late 2000s. But no one could have predicted that a children’s story could be the catalyst to embed the word in the Swedish language in just a few short months.

In July 2014 it was announced that hen would be included in Svenska Akademiens ordlista, the official glossary of the Swedish Academy.

Image, Swedish pronouns han, hon, and hen.

Swedish pronouns han, hon, and hen. Image by Wikipedia / CC0

Read more about gender-neutral pronouns

Gender-neutral pronouns in English: using the singular ‘they’

Wikipedia page about ‘hen’

Article on Slate about ‘hen’

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