Nordic vs. Scandinavian: Meaning & Usage Explained

Even people living in these countries sometimes struggle to explain the differences between being Nordic and Scandinavian. With good reason too, as there is a bit of a grey area among the global population on how to separate the two.

So—what’s the difference between the Nordics and Scandinavia?

Scandinavia is a Northern European region historically made up of the countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, but generally and broadly speaking also Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. The Nordic region is the broader Scandinavian region plus the remote areas of Greenland, Jan Mayen Island, and Svalbard.

I should add that this is the general and global view of the two terms, and that there are more views on how to define the two terms, specifically if you ask the locals in each of the countries in the region.

A Finn would for example likely prefer to be called Nordic rather than Scandinavian, while Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians likely would describe themselves as Scandinavians first.

Icelandic people would likely also agree that both they and their language are of direct Scandinavian descent — something the Finns would never dream of — but technically speaking they would still call themselves Nordics first.

This complicates the distinction between what it means to be Nordic and/or Scandinavian a bit. To make it a bit easier to separate the two terms, I have compiled a table with a quick overview of the formal and informal differences between the terms Nordic and Scandinavian:

NordicScandinavian
Meaning:“Of the north”“Of Scandinavia”
Geographical area:Northern Europe (excluding British Isles, Baltics, European Russia) and GreenlandScandinavian and Jutland peninsulas, Danish islands in between, and Swedish Islands in Baltic Sea
Countries formally included:Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, and GreenlandSweden, Denmark, and Norway
Countries commonly and broadly included:Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, and GreenlandSweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Faroe Islands
Common historical/ethnic background:Mostly*
(* The Finns and the Sami minorities in Sweden and Norway do not share the same ethnic background as the rest)
Mostly*
(* The Finns and the Sami minorities in Sweden and Norway do not share the same ethnic background as the rest)
Common modern-day cultural background and values:YesYes

Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the two terms and regions individually, starting with the Nordic region:

The Nordic Region

The Nordic region includes the Northern European countries of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Greenland, along with the island regions of Åland, Jan Mayen, and Svalbard.

These countries are tied together culturally, historically, financially, and politically; specifically when it comes to the following areas:

  • Democratic and political rights
  • General transparency and low levels of corruption
  • Trust between each other and toward the government
  • Population feels safe
  • Social unity
  • Gender equality
  • Distributing incomes via taxation
  • Similarly high Human Development Index

The Meaning of Nordic

The Nordic region refers to the Northern European countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Greenland. Most of the region can also be referred to as Scandinavia.

So, is it basically just Northern Europe then?

While Nordic can generally be used synonymously with Northern European, there are a few differences; You would not refer to the British Isles, the Baltics, or the European parts of Russia as Nordic, but they are all considered Northern European.

ℹ️ The Nordic countries are more commonly called Norden locally, which literally means “the North”. In the Nordics you would similarly refer to a Nordic person as Nordisk which means “of the North” which would infer that “Nordic” would mean the same.

Other Regions with Ties to the Nordics

The following regions all have a connection to the Nordics through cultural, ethnic, or historical ties:

  • Ireland (in which every city today was founded by Norsemen)
  • the Northern Isles of Scotland (colonized by Norsemen)
  • Estonia (pursued membership before WW2)
  • Germany (shared germanic cultural and ethnic ties)
  • the Netherlands (shared germanic cultural and ethnic ties)
  • Belgium (shared germanic cultural and ethnic ties)
  • France (shared germanic cultural and ethnic ties, the Norman connection)
  • Ukraine (colonized, influenced, and partly founded by Norsemen)
  • Russia (colonized, influenced, and partly founded by Norsemen)

Why isn’t Estonia Nordic?

It might be a meme at this point, but Estonia has been under Scandinavian influence since the Viking days, and the country was actively pushing towards being defined as a Nordic country after its war of independence in 1918. Today more than half of its young population consider belonging to the Nordic identity group important or very important.

The reason Estonia isn’t Nordic is because the process of gaining membership alongside Finland was interrupted by the Soviet occupation during World War 2. If it weren’t for that, Estonia would likely be considered part of the Nordic countries today.

The Nordic countries are still Estonia’s most important trade partners, and before the Societ occupation, there were a large number of Swedes present in the coastal areas of Estonia (25% of the population of Tallin, the capital of Estonia, were for example Swedes).

A study in 2020 by the University of Tartu also showed that 6th graders today felt a stronger affinity to Sweden, Finland, and the other Nordic countries, than to neighboring Baltic countries Latvia and Lithuania. This has been observed in other studies as well, moving the Estonians closer and closer toward the Nordics, at least in the minds of their next generation.


The Scandinavian Region

Locally and technically speaking, Scandinavia refers to the countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (all speaking the Scandinavian languages and home of the Norsemen/Vikings of pre-medieval fame).

However, for most of the English-speaking world, Scandinavia can more commonly refer to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and additionally Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, alluding to a larger geographical, political, and cultural group.

The Meaning of Scandinavia

It is believed that Scandinavia comes from the germanic SkaðinAwjō (pronounced “ska-tin-aw-jo”). Skaðin means “danger” or “injury”, and Awjō means “island” or “land next to water”.

This would suggest that the word Scandinavia means “Dangerous Island”, which is thought to be referring to the treacherous waters and sandbanks around Scania and Jylland, which have likely been the cause of a lot of maritime troubles over the years.

It is likely also the origin of Scania (the region of Skåne in southern Sweden) and Skanör (a town in southwestern Skåne).

The name was mentioned by Pliny the Elder when he referred to the region as Scatinavia in his writings from 77 CE, and around 500 CE Jordanes used the term Scandza to describe where the Goths came from.

The Scandinavian Peninsula and the Scandinavian Countries

The Scandinavian peninsula is located in Northern Europe and contains the countries of Sweden, Norway, the northwestern part of Finland, and a small slice of northwestern Russia. It lays north of Germany, and west of Russia and the Baltics.

That means two out of the three Scandinavian countries are located on the Scandinavian peninsula, as it does not contain Denmark (which is located on the Jutland peninsula and its 443 islands).

Quick answers about the Nordics and Scandinavia

Which Countries are Nordic But Not Scandinavian?

There are two sides to this:

1. The original and locally preferred view is that Iceland, Finland, Faroe Islands, and Greenland are all countries considered to be part of the Nordics, but not technically part of Scandinavia (which would only be Sweden, Norway and Denmark in this case).

2. The international and more commonly preferred view is that the Faroe Islands, Finland and Iceland are part of both Scandinavia and the Nordics, leaving Greenland as the only non-Scandinavian country in the Nordics (along with the Norwegian territories of Svalbard, Jan Mayen and Bouvet Island).

Do All Nordic Countries Have Viking Heritage?

The Nordic region as a whole has a very strong connection to the Norse, and they did indeed have kingdoms and settlements in all of the Nordic countries at some point, all originating from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. The Nordic country with the least norse influence is Finland, where the vikings mainly settled in the Åland islands and parts of the west coast (they did stop in Finnish ports along the way east towards what would become the Viking Gardariki in the Rus lands).

If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the terms, I have gone through the differences between Nordic and Norse in greater depth.

Is Scandinavian a Race or an Ethnicity?

There is no Scandinavian race, but some anthropologists in the 19th and 20th century used to refer to a Nordic sub-race to the Caucasian race. As studies in modern genetics progress, the concept of race is becoming obsolete, and has since been disproven. There are however some common traits among the Scandinavian people.

Scandinavian as an ethnicity has generally and traditionally referred to the speakers of the Scandinavian languages and descendants of the Norsemen. However, there has been a strong move in modern days towards being more inclusive and referring to all citizens of the Scandinavian countries—and even those of Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands as well—when talking about what the term Scandinavian means today.

Which Scandinavian Countries are in the EU?

Sweden and Denmark (and Finland for those including the Finns in Scandinavia) are the only Scandinavian members of the European Union. Denmark was the first Nordic country to become a member in 1973, followed by Sweden and Finland in 1995.

Which Scandinavian Countries are not in the EU?

Norway, (and Iceland, and the Faroe Islands) are not members of the EU, but generally referred to as being part of Scandinavia (countries in parenthesis aren’t formally part of Scandinavia).

Do Scandinavian Countries Accept Euro?

No. Sweden, Denmark, and Noway all have their own currencies: Swedish krona, SEK; Danish krone, DKK; Norwegian krone, NOK. They have all voted on whether or not they should adopt the Euro, but the Scandinavian population has so far voted against joining the eurozone.

There is however one country in the region that does use the Euro; Finland. The Finns are the only Nordics with the Euro as their single currency, and has been part of the “eurozone” since 1999.


Summary

So, there is no doubt a sizeable grey area when it comes to separating the terms Nordic and Scandinavian — especially among the locals.

But generally and internationally speaking being Nordic and being Scandinavian essentially means the same thing: being a citizen of either Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, or the Faroe Islands (with Finland sometimes considered the odd one out as they do not share the same Norse heritage as the other countries).


Sources:

https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2020/the-nordic-exceptionalism-what-explains-why-the-nordic-countries-are-constantly-among-the-happiest-in-the-world/

https://www.delfi.ee/artikkel/89576035/fotod-narva-ja-tartu-lastel-lasti-joonistada-kuidas-naeksid-eesti-ja-venemaa-valja-inimestena

More sources

Karl Andersson

As a native Swede with a Finnish mother, Karl identifies as both Nordic and Scandinavian. He left Sweden at 19 to explore the world, and stayed abroad for almost 8 years—during which he backpacked, worked every job there was, earned a degree from UC Berkeley, and met the future mother of his children. He ultimately returned to his native Malmö with his love, where they now have 3 Swedish-American boys eager to explore the world.

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