In a talk delivered at the recent TEDxTallinn, Adam Rang, who previously worked at Estonia’s e-residency programme, explained how he and his partner are introducing the word “leil” – “sauna steam” in Estonian – to new communities of sauna enthusiasts around the world seeking a more authentic sauna experience.
Rang pointed out “sauna” was the only Finnic word in common usage globally. In his opinion, Estonians could add the Estonian word “leil” – describing the steam that is generated by pouring water onto hot rocks in sauna – to the global lexicon. It would be the first Estonian word in English and global common usage.
“The Oxford English dictionary now has 26 words of Korean origin, for example, with new words added this year to reflect the growing influence of Korean popular culture,” Rang told Estonian World. “Korea has global hits like K-pop and ‘Squid Game’ but Estonia, as a Finnic nation, already has the sauna as a global hit and we can use that to get the first Estonian word into English while teaching more people how to properly enjoy saunas.”
Rang, who was born in the UK, but has lived in Estonia for years, would like to see saunas around the world to follow the “leil” tradition.
“It’s a familiar frustration for Estonians abroad. You find a sauna but there’s a sign above the stove saying ‘do not pour water on the stones’. Even worse, in many saunas around the world there aren’t even any stones to pour water on nor many other features and traditions that have long been considered an essential part of what it means to sauna,” Rang noted.
His idea has already received a warm reception among some sauna enthusiasts abroad, such as Katie Bracher, a founding member of the British Sauna Society, which advocates for authentic saunas and has heralded the revival of steam bathing across Britain as “the second coming of steam”. Bracher also runs Beach Box Spa, a popular spa located on Brighton Beach in southern England.
“We find Estonian sauna culture really interesting and unique and have built our site with the sauna technology that has been coming from the country in recent years,” Bracher said. “We love to educate our guests whilst they sauna with us, and so we named our sauna Leil after seeing Adam’s campaign, because we think it’s a great word to be brought into the English language too.”
Rang said Estonia “can be as famous globally for saunas as it already is for things like e-residency that contributes to both Estonia’s prosperity and its soft power as a nation”. “We can do that not just by changing the conversation globally about saunas but also by changing the very words in that conversation.”
“Maybe we should do a deal with the Finns who have already managed to get sauna into English. And perhaps the next sauna word needed globally is for the bundles of branches that we use to beat ourselves. The problem with ‘viht’ in Estonian is that English speakers tend to drop the ‘h’ and turn it into a rude Estonian word. The Russian word, ‘venik’, is much easier for English speakers so maybe we can do a deal with our Russian neighbours next,” Rang added, jokingly.
You can watch Rang’s talk about the meaning of leil below.
Cover: Adam Rang at TEDxTallinn.