Terminology: the Common Confusion Between Scandinavia and the Nordics

Get down with the Nordic lingo...and why are the Finns so dark?

Many people (read: mostly non-scandinavian/Nordic people) don’t know the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic, or that there even is one at all. The majority of the world views these two terms as interchangeable but they’re actually not.

Despite my numerous links to the Nordic countries ( Scandi friends, boyfriend’s Swedish family, love of Nordic cuisine and literature, not to mention Finnish bestie), even I didn’t know until relatively recently that there was even a difference between the two. It turns out that what I’ve been referring to as ‘Scandinavian’ for a quite a big chunk of my life is really classified as ‘Nordic’ (to those British reading, it’s sort of similar to the whole United Kingdom/Great Britain thing).

To help you differentiate between the two and hopefully provide a little bit of clarity on the terms, here’s what I’ve discovered:

What does the term ‘Scandinavia’ refer to?

Scandinavia is an anglophone term that refers to the three countries: Sweden, Norway and Denmark. It comes from ‘Skandinavien’ – a word used by the three countries to describe their sharing of common North Germanic languages and mutual ethnocultural heritage (the Finnish language in particular is a whole different kettle of kala).


Geographically, things are probably confused a bit by the Scandinavian Peninsula; the geographical area which is made up of Sweden, Norway, and only a part of northern Finland. Denmark isn’t included in this as it’s across the water on the Jutland Peninsula (which also emcompasses a small part of Germany. Which is NOT Scandinavian. Or Nordic).

What does the term ‘Nordic’ refer to?

The Nordic countries consists of the five northern European countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Depending on who you’re talking to, Nordic can also refer to Greenland, Faroe Islands and Åland Islands. (Russia definitely doesn’t count. And neither does Germany.)

‘Nordic’ comes from the Scandinavian word ‘Norden’ which translates as ‘The North(ern lands)’. This covers the geographical and cultural area including the Scandinavian countries listed above, as well as countries that were previously their territories.

Does it matter?

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