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Linnaeus’ life told in slang from Southside Stockholm
”Charlie Linnaeus” by the Black Mask

The book Swedish Hist’ry Told Real Quick by the Southside Kid, Willy Anderson was published in 1923. The author was given as the Black Mask, which was a pseudonym for Anna Myrberg. This book includes a life of Linnaeus, as told in slang from the Southside of Stockholm: “Charlie Linnaeus was a kid with a light curly do, though he was born in the darkest part of Småland,” the tale starts.

We have reached a period whose humor we can understand. Myrberg writes the way it sounded when young people talked to each other on the streets of Stockholm in the 1920s. You recognize it from old black-and-white movies you see on TV. On the dust cover the author writes that Stockholm slang—or ‘Southside American’ as it is also called—may not be the most beautiful language, but it’s unusually easy to understand. She wouldn’t dare to recommend it for use in primary and secondary schools, though she does think that “children, educators, and the general public should take a break and have some fun once in a while,” adding “We’re only human after all.”

From the 1929 film Adventures of Willy Anderson.
Picture from the archives of the Swedish Film Institute.

Swedish Hist’ry contains a series of tales about various historical figures, and the story behind the book is said to be that Willy Anderson got to school late so often that his teacher gave him an assignment to make up the history lessons he had missed by writing down everything he knew about Swedish kings and queens.

“You know about as much hist’ry as my ol’ cardigan hangin’ up in the attic,” the teacher had said to him. Whereupon Willy made up his mind to show that teacher that he sure knew his history “though it sure will take a lot o’ messin’’ n’ tinkerin’”.

Even if you can’t believe everything it says in the text, it does provide a picture of Linnaeus that is rather close to what the encyclopedias say. Here’s how Myrberg’s text sounds:

When Charlie got ta school the teacher had a heckuva time gettin’ ’m to catch on, ’n’ he finally tol’ Charlie’s ol’ man that the kid was a first-class numbskull ’n’ they oughta try n’ edjicate ’m ta make traps for rats or ta shov’l snow off roofs instead, ye know?  “That turnip for a head o’ his jus’ goes roun’ and roun’,” he wrote on his report card, “’cuz all he wants ta do is traipse around the countryside ’n’ pick up all sortsa junk.”

If you look him up in Nordisk Familjebok (Nordic Family Book), an encyclopedia published about ten years earlier, you will find, sure enough:

During his entire school period Linnaeus was extremely eager to learn all the herbs […] He did not have much of a mind for any other schoolwork, and toward the end of his upper-secondary schooling, his father received reports from most of the teachers that his son was very weak in all of the most important [...] subjects.

Isn’t it strange that a text suddenly appears that speaks to us directly? Why do the poems from the 18th and 19th centuries not seem to be so close? What happened in the meantime to people’s way of thinking and expressing themselves? Could this text have been written in the 18th century? And by a woman? A part of Myrberg’s text is about Linnaeus’ father “who was a preacherman” and how he “stood there yellin’ his head off in church.” Expressing yourself this way was not considered appropriate in Linnaeus’ own times. It could be said that Myrberg is making fun of respecting authorities.

The boy telling us the story was quick to be mischievous with his parents, his minister, and professors. And by choosing a naughty boy as her narrator, the author can write disrespectfully about things she should otherwise be polite about. On the other hand, if you want to write something funny, there’s no better subject than something that is solemn.

You can wonder whether the times had become more receptive to this type of humor. Swedish Hist’ry is just one of several humorous books by the Black Mask.

She also contributed to a couple of magazines, including the humor publication Casper. At any rate, in the early 1920s these magazines kept Swedes doubled over with laughter in their homes.

Advertisement for Myrberg’s book and others in the humor magazine Casper 1923.
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