Why Are Danish People Called Squareheads?

From a pejorative to a reclaimed descriptor – the word “squarehead” has changed and evolved since people first started using it. A term that likely originated in the American midwest, “squarehead” is infrequently used today, except when used offensively.

Danish people are called squareheads as an insult meaning ‘slow’ or ‘dull’ that is broadly applied to people of Scandinavian, Nordic, and German origin in America. The term began as a descriptor sometime in the early 1900s, though stories of the origin vary. 

While the term may not have started as an insult, it was soon used in a derogatory way for anyone of Nordic origin. Scandinavian Immigrants in America found themselves dismissed as ‘squareheads.’ [1]

This article explores if squarehead is used outside America, what it means, and why it was used. 

Also, see Why Are Danish People Depressed? to learn more.

Danish people
Is “squarehead” a derogatory term in Denmark? See below

Is “Squarehead” a Derogatory Term in Denmark?

Squarehead is a word used to refer to people of Scandinavian, Nordic, and German origins in America.

There are some instances where the term has also been used in the UK, particularly for German people. [2]

“Squarehead” is not a derogatory term in Denmark because the word is simply not used at all, except when referring to hardware like screws.

Most Danes are fluent in English, but it is still a second language, so they are unlikely to be familiar with antiquated slang like the word “squarehead.”

The Scandinavians who experienced discrimination by being called ‘squarehead’ were immigrants who moved to America in the late 1800s.

These immigrants would have encountered the word as they attempted to find work in America, used as a broad ethnic slur to describe anyone who matched the archetype of “Nordic.” [3]

Another way that Scandinavians might have encountered the term is if they were soldiers in World War 1 and World War 2 by English and American soldiers.

The term had already evolved into a slang word used to refer to Scandinavians and Germans before World War 1 but likely came into common usage amongst the soldiers. [4]

It is very likely that the word was more frequently associated with German people rather than Scandinavians.

There are records of the term used by American soldiers battling the Axis powers at the time. [5]

In the 1930s, the word was used in a short story called Vikings of the Glove by Robert E. Howard.

In the story, the word is used to describe Scandinavians and specifically mentions the Danish and Swedes among them. [6]

While the term in the story isn’t used as an insult, it is used to group ethnicities together and ‘other’ them from the non-immigrant characters in the story. 

This story is a great example of how everyday people used the term in everyday conversations.

It also presents the beginnings of discrimination, where ethnic descriptors are used to lump several people together and set them aside from the majority. 

The use of the word to refer to the Scandinavian seamen or dockworkers as squareheads seems appropriate for the time when every immigrant had an ethnic descriptor attached.

While the term wasn’t an outright insult, it was a definite othering present everywhere, including in magazines like The Atlantic. [7]

By the 1980s, the term was not actively used except when referring to the past. John Gould notes that the term is used as a descriptor in his article ‘Olde Maine’ for The Christian Science Monitor

The article doesn’t take away from the fact that Scandinavian immigrants often found themselves called ‘squareheads’ and ‘dumb Swedes’ regardless of ethnicity, making the term a slur. [8] 

Nevertheless, by the 1980s, people of Nordic origin had started using the word to describe themselves, as a Norwegian-origin man told New York Magazine in 1986. [9] 

Today the word has largely fallen out of use, except as a descriptive label by people of Scandinavian origin. People may even use it to name their endeavors like ‘Squarehead Industries.’ [10]

However, the term, and the intended ethnic grouping and insult, are endemic to America and didn’t travel to Denmark.

The word is simply not used in its slang meaning there, so squarehead is not a derogatory term in Denmark. 

Danish beach
What does squarehead mean in slang? See below

What Does Squarehead Mean in Slang? 

The terms’ “squarehead” and “blockhead” seem to have developed at about the same time to generally describe anything from the shape of people’s heads to their demeanor.

The words were likely used interchangeably to more or less mean the same thing. 

Squarehead means’ “thick,” “slow,” or “dull” in slang. It was typically used as an insulting descriptor or ethnic slur against German and Scandinavian people.

The term was popularized during the World Wars by American and English soldiers. 

When it was first used, squarehead was likely a simple descriptor of the shape of an individual’s head or face.

When the word came into common use, it was associated with blockhead, which is used as an insult to indicate that the individual is as unintelligent as a block of wood. 

The word probably continued to develop into a derogatory term as Scandinavian immigrants in the early 1900s likely struggled with the English language.

Scandinavians at the time didn’t commonly learn English as a second language but rather learned German.

Their struggle would have made them appear slow and emotionless to their employers, who would then respond with discrimination. 

Map of Denmark
Map of Denmark

Why Were Germans Called Squareheads? 

There are several origin stories for the term squareheads, and the most common one is ascribed to German helmets in World War 1.

However, the story is unlikely as the term was already in use in the early 1900s.

Germans were called squareheads for the boxy shape of their helmets, the shape of their heads, or the shape of their regimental military haircuts.

While all of these stories are feasible, the likely origin is that the word was used to describe the shape of their heads or their haircut. 

Since the Germans and Americans were on opposite sides in the War, the usage of the term devolved.

It became an outright ethnic slur used to discriminate against anyone who looked the part, which included Scandinavians like the Danish people. 

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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