Getting Steamed Up About a Sauna

I’m just back from Finland, a beautiful country with many lakes to swim in, and to cycle and walk round. The weather was perfect, with none of the extreme heat of southern Europe or the chilly dampness of Britain over the last couple of weeks.

I went there to visit a woman I first met nearly fifty years ago. As students, we both found jobs in the same hotel in Scotland: Marja to improve her English as part of her degree course; me to earn some money before going back to university after a year out with a mystery illness. Her English remains really good, despite it being her third language; my Finnish is still limited to half a dozen words, smiling politely, and pointing hopefully.

But there is one Finnish word I have known for most of my life, and I expect you have too, without necessarily knowing it was Finnish – sauna. English, like many other languages, has simply adopted the Finnish term, and it needs no translation.

The word sauna has been around for a couple of thousand years and is linked to the Finnish word – nah – for bath/bathhouse. The original saunas were heated by a stone stove filled with wood. The stove would take about eight hours to get the nah to the desired temperature and emitted so much smoke that it blackened the walls. In fact, the first saunas were call savu (Finnish for smoke) and the word sauna is thought to be a derivative of savuna – literally meaning ‘in smoke.’

Finns have travelled extensively, and wherever they have moved to they have taken their sauna culture with them. And, of course, the word to describe it.

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