Excerpted from Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. Out now from Atlantic Monthly Press.
The year 1967 was the height of the hippie era. The Beatles, with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” are singing the praises of LSD. And, almost equally shocking, a top Swedish executive is calling for unprecedented levels of informality. Bror Rexed, the incoming director-general of the Medicinalstyrelse (Public Health Board), announces that he intends to address all employees by their first names and would like them to do the same for him. And he gets his way.
So, ever since July 3, 1967, Rexed’s name (particularly his surname, ironically enough) has been linked to the du-reform. Du, in Swedish as in German, is the informal version of the English “you.” French has the equivalent tu and English, between the 13th and 18th centuries, had thou. Which is not to say this was all Rexed’s doing. There had been signs already that the tide of public opinion was turning, and a short time later even Prime Minister Olof Palme endorsed the new trend: upon taking office in 1969, he publicly dealt with journalists on a first-name-and-du basis. Nevertheless, in Sweden’s collective memory, Rexed’s announcement has remained the symbolic turning point.
Read more: Slate