Daily Archives: August 9, 2018


This word came over a long time ago from Old Norse, and then we stopped using it. And then it came over again much more recently from Swedish, and it’s only beginning to catch on. And it may or may not be the same word, but yeah, I guess it is.

Well, you know, it’s like when things just somehow don’t make it from one department to another. There’s a communication breakdown. Someone in one office in your company has a great idea and has meetings and decides something should be done. And then… well, nothing actually gets done, because it never leaves there and goes to the people who could make it happen. And maybe later someone who can actually make it happen thinks of it, or something like it, and makes it happen. And you can bet the person who thought of it in the other part of the office will want some credit for it.

Sure, you could call it communication breakdown. But really it’s office breakdown. Swedish for ‘office’ is byrå, and the Swedish verb for ‘break down’ is rasa. Which, jammed together, has come to us.

Except that in Old Norse, byr meant ‘village’ or ‘farm’, and in modern Swedish, by means ‘village’. And as a real origin it makes more sense for byrasa first to have been village breakdown. You know, people who decide things decide things, and at some later time people who do things do things that at least somehow resemble the original decisions, so of course the people who decide things talk about how it was their decision, while the people who do things give them the stinkeye. Village breakdown.

In other words, byrasa is political or organizational breakdown, a communication and effect gap. Wheels spin independently of the driver. It gets to be a bit like that bit in the opening of The Simpsons where the baby appears to be driving the car. Now make that baby a boss – or a mayor or other seat-filler.

I don’t know if this word will get wings in English, though there’s certainly a use for it. It just looks a bit odd. Also, don’t ask any Swedes about it. What I said about the roots in Swedish and Old Norse is true, but I just made the word up from Scrabble tiles and backformed it. It’s a new old word. Well, someone had to do it. And someone else had to get credit for it.

Pronunciation tip: Zoltán Kodály

If you’ve never studied music, you may not have heard of Zoltán Kodály. But listen to this. He’s a Hungarian composer who can teach us something interesting about rhythm… not with his music (though that’s nice enough); with his name.