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Sisu is a Finnish term loosely translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. However, the word is widely considered to lack a proper translation into any other language. Sisu has been described as being integral to understanding Finnish culture. However sisu is defined by a long-term element in it; it is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain an action against the odds. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision against repeated failures is sisu. It is similar to equanimity, except the forbearance of sisu has a grimmer quality of stress management than the latter. The noun sisu is related to the adjective sisukas, one having the quality of sisu.
"Having guts" is the English-to-Finnish formal translation, as the word derives from sisus, which means something inner or interior. Dynamic translation (sense translation) of 'sisu' yields the English word 'grit'; which shares all its denoting elements with 'sisu', save for 'stress management', which finds connotative representation in 'grit', via 'grit's' elements of 'resilience', and 'hardiness'.
Sisu has been described by The New York Times as "the word that explains Finland", and the Finns' "favorite word"—"the most wonderful of all their words." During the famous Winter War of 1939–1940, the Finnish perseverance in the face of the invasion by the Soviet Union popularized this word in English for a generation. In what might have been the first use of sisu in the English language, on January 8, 1940, Time magazine reported:
The Finns have something they call sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate sisu as "the Finnish spirit" but it is a much more gutful word than that. Last week the Finns gave the world a good example of sisu by carrying the war into Russian territory on one front while on another they withstood merciless attacks by a reinforced Russian Army. In the wilderness that forms most of the Russo-Finnish frontier between Lake Laatokka and the Arctic Ocean, the Finns definitely gained the upper hand.
Singled out for kudos for this attribute was "Finland's wiry old peasant President, Kyösti Kallio—73 years old and full of sisu (courage)—last week thought up a new scheme to get supplies for his country." It was also used to describe the Finnish stubbornness in sticking to its loose alliance with The Third Reich from 1940 to 1943:
Finnish sisu—meaning a peculiarly Finnish brand of doggedness, capable of facing down death itself—was at work against the Allies. ... The Finns are not happy. But sisu enables them to say: "We have nothing worse than death to fear."
HELSINKI, host to the Olympic Games, a city of 400,000, was abustle. ... The Finns are not stupidly hiding their eyes from their future, but they are determined not to fall into another fight with a powerful and predatory next-door neighbor 66 times their size (in area, Finland is the sixth largest country in Europe; in population it is the third smallest). Under popular, 81-year-old President Juho Kusti Paasikivi and able, unpopular Agrarian Premier Urho Kekkonen, the Finns have learned to walk the nerve-racking path of independence like tight-rope walkers.
Well into the 1960s, sisu was used to describe the Finnish resistance to the invasion of 20 to 30 years prior and its continuing discontents. In 1960, Austin Goodrich's book, Study in Sisu: Finland's Fight for Independence, was published by Ballantine. Also in 1960, a notable reviewer of Griffin Taylor's novel, Mortlake, wrote:
"HAVE you heard of Finnish sisu?" asks a character in "Mortlake" -- and it turns out that sisu is a sort of stamina or staying-power which the Finns have had to develop as a result of living next door to the Russians.
Even in 2009, sisu is so important to being Finnish that "to be a real Finn" you must have it: "willpower, tenacity, persistency."
Due to its cultural significance, "sisu" is a common element of brand names in Finland. For example, there are Sisu brand trucks (and Sisu armored vehicles), icebreaker MS Sisu, a brand of strong-tasting pastilles manufactured by Leaf , and a Finnish nationalist organisation Suomen Sisu.
In times like these, the executives who run Nokia talk up a uniquely Finnish quality called sisu. "The translation would be 'guts,' " says Jorma Ollila, CEO of Nokia, the world's most prolific cell phone maker, in an interview at company headquarters here. (Photograph Caption: Jorma Ollila says Nokia is determined to 'overcome all obstacles.') "But it's also endurance. There is a long-term element to it. You overcome all obstacles. You need quite a lot of sisu to survive in this climate." The climate he's referring to is the bleak and bitter Nordic winters, but he might as well be talking about the competitive, erratic wireless-phone market and Nokia's travails. This sisu trait—anathema to Wall Street's short-term outlook—says a lot about Nokia's response to its recent turmoil.—Kevin Maney, USA TODAY (italics in original)
Sisu is not always a positive Finnish term: "pahansisuinen" literally translated means "one possessing bad sisu", a description of a hostile and malignant person.
A Finnish heavy metal rock singer injured himself, without noticing, at a concert, to which a reviewer wrote:
Alan epäillä, että suomalainen sisu ja adrenaliini ovat yksi ja sama asia.—I am beginning to suspect that the Finnish sisu and adrenaline are the same thing.—ImperiumI.net Finnish Heavy Metal website
In Robert A. Heinlein's "juvenile" novel, Citizen of the Galaxy, the protagonist was adopted by the captain of an interstellar trading ship which was named, "Sisu". This reflected Heinlein's admiration of the Finnish stand against the Soviets, Heinlein himself being ardently anti-communist. The interstellar trading "family" of which this ship was but a part, is described as being fiercely proud and independent, preferring battle and death to being taken prisoner by raiding pirates.
The term is commonly used in everyday speech to describe stoic toughness. It is widely understood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is home to a large concentration of Americans of Finnish descent. This has extended to include a popular bumper sticker saying simply "Sisu". By analogy, the term has picked up new meanings. Depending on context, sisu can refer to spunk, attitude, self-confidence, and so on. However, sisu is not bravery, nor strength. It is distinguished from courage, especially when talking about the military. Sisu is an ability to finish a task successfully, as defined by Roman Schatz in his book From Finland with Love (2005), and decisiveness. Usually sisu means the will and decisiveness to surmount challenges against impossible odds.
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