Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is the perfect city. Blessed with the high standard of living that is so characteristic of Scandinavia, Helsinki has been hailed as the Most Livable City as of 2011 by the global-affairs magazine – Monocle.
Even the city’s name is an escapee from a perfect linguistic labyrinth.
The story begins in the Swedish landskap (province) of Hälsingland. In Swedish, “häls” means neck or throat. The Swedes referred to the narrowest part of a river (the rapids) as the ‘neck of the river’ or the ‘tongue of the land’ and hence, the word for narrow rivers was “hälsing”. Not only did these Swedes name their landskap ‘Hälsingland’ but even the people from this landskap came to be known as the Hälsings.
So in the Middle Ages, many of these Hälsings left their home turf and began migrating towards Österland (present-day Finland). They named several new areas after Hälsingland. One such subject of nominal transition was a river (now called River Vantaa) that came to be known as Helsingeå. A set of rapids on the Helsingeå were christened ‘ Hellssingeforss‘ (fors is Swedish for rapids).
In 1550, King Gustav Vasa of Hälsingland founded a new town at the site of these rapids and named it after the rapids. The name soon got shortened to Helsingfors and the city that was given birth that day would go on to become the capital of Finland in 1812.
Yes, Helsingfors was nothing but the original name of Helsinki. In fact, the Swedes still like to call their Finnish neighbours’ capital by its ancestral name – Helsingfors. Even the Russians called it Gelsingfors. It appears, however, that the Finns themselves preferred the river ‘Helsingeå’ over the rapids and that’s how the name ‘Helsinki’ materialized.
As if the downsizing wasn’t enough, the Sami people call it ‘Helsset’ and other Finns now call it just ‘Hesa‘ in short. The citizens of Helsinki themselves, however, call their home Stadi (Swedish stad means “city”).
So now that you know Helsinki has nothing to do with sinking in hell, don’t run away from this beautiful city, aptly nicknamed “The Daughter of the Baltic”.