Sisu and Sauna: In honor of St Urho’s Day

Today, St Urho’s Day, I have sisu and sauna (pronounced [saʊnə], sow-nuh) on my mind. Sisu is particularly significant: a Finnish borrowing that has no one-word translation in English. Terttu Leney (2003) defines sisu as “fortitudinous staying power and tenacity in the face of adversity, against insurmountable odds”, in other words, ‘having guts’. I named my cat Sisu. She was a stray who persisted through three weeks of cold, snow, and rain to convince me that she should live inside the house, not out in the field. Her sisu-ness won me over and got her inside, where she fattened up and now lives happily with two Labrador Retrievers and two humans. In the UP and other parts of the Upper Midwest where Finns settled, you can see bumper stickers, t-shirts, and license plates proclaiming “sisu.” Sauna is also a significant dialect feature in that it functions as a shibboleth, or password of sorts. Many residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula pronounce it as [saʊnə], whereas outsiders typically pronounce it as [sanə], (sah-nuh), thus marking them as outsiders. St Urho, today’s (March 16) fictional patron saint who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland to save the grape crop, as well as Heikki Lunta,  the snow god of the UP, are also important UP symbols, both folk characters that represent local cultural practices and values. So, today in honor of St Urho wear purple and green and have some sisu to carry you into spring.

Leney, Tertu. (2003). Teach yourself Finnish. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Virtanen, Hilary. (2006). Heikki Lunta.