I have never met a Finn in the flesh, but they have always intrigued me. It all began with “Suomi Finland”. That’s what it says on Finnish postage stamps. I know this because I used to collect them as a boy. I also had stamps from the mysterious countries of Helvetia and Magyar Posta, which I suspected were hidden behind the Iron Curtain, because I couldn’t find them on any map. When I asked my mother, she sighed, walked over to the bookcase and pulled two volumes of Collier’s Encyclopaedia off the shelf. “I didn’t sit listening to that idiot for nothing, I hope?” she asked rhetorically. The idiot she was referring to was the door-to-door salesman who had stroked our little heads as he waxed lyrical about his “volumes crammed full of knowledge that no child should be without.” My mother was unimpressed by his spiel, but my father felt his children should have easy access to works of reference that allowed them to discover that the mysterious Helvetia and Magyar Posta were in fact Switzerland and Hungary or, more accurately, the Hungarian postal service.
But I always retained a soft spot for “Suomi Finland”, partly because they took the trouble to include their country’s name in English, which meant that, should I ever meet a real Finn, I could point to him or her and ask: “Suomi?”
As kids, we also had an inflatable dinghy that had warnings printed on the side in about fifteen different languages. Most of those languages needed lots of words to caution playing children. Finnish needed only four or five. Each word was packed with vowels, which made them sound like one-word poems when we read them out loud. We imagined Finns chanting these meditative sounds while floating in slow motion through the air with wing-sized skis strapped to their feet or as they flew along treacherous roads in fast cars.
Finland has, of course, produced some great architects and popular mobile phones, but I was still stuck with the image of rough-and-ready Finns chasing reindeer through the snow. In short, it was high time to lay this prejudice to rest. I wracked my brain, but no real strategy emerged, so I decided to go in search of the longest Finnish word I could find. According to several online sources, that word is:
Of course I immediately committed the entire word to the Great Oracle and got more than 3,000 hits. To my delight, I saw that one of those hits was for a Facebook group devoted to this mega-word. I swiftly became the 377th member and learned that this is actually a compound term meaning “technical non-commissioned officer trainee specialized in aircraft jet engines” (or something to that effect). I also learned that the longest single word is:
The longest Finnish place name is:
Now all I need is a friendly Finn who can explain these words to me and answer the question that has been burning in my mind for so long: How many Finnish people are killed each year playing Scrabble?
(Seriously though, suomalaiset ystävät, where should we go when we visit your beautiful country? This is a travel blog, after all.)