The word semla has its origins in the Latin word simila, which referred to high quality wheat flour – you can compare it to semolina, used to refer to durum wheat in English and Italian today.
In some German dialects, mostly in the southern region of Bavaria and in Austria, the word Semmel refers to a bread roll, and this comes from the word semala in older forms of German.
But semla isn't the only name for the cream-filled pastry.
You'll also hear it called a fettisdagsbulle (literally a 'Fat Tuesday pastry') or fastlagsbulle (literally 'a Shrovetide pastry'). The latter is most common in southern Sweden, but also in Swedish-speaking Finland, where a semla is a plain savoury wheat bun (with the same linguistic origin as German Semmel), which would be called a fralla in the rest of Sweden.
Today the bun is made of wheat flour, spiced with cardamom, and filled with almond paste and plenty of whipped cream. But it wasn't always this way: it probably started out as a plain bun, referenced in Swedish documents dating back to the 16th century. From the 18th century, the bun was eaten with warm milk as a final small indulgence before the fasting period of Lent.
But Lent became less significant once Sweden became a Protestant country, and the bun was eaten throughout the period between Shrove Tuesday and Easter – and at some point in the 1800s it was embellished with the almond paste and cream, while cafes began to sell it without the accompanying milk.
One reason why semla is the name of choice for most Swedes is probably savvy marketing, and the word became the most prominent name around the same time that the number of cafes in Sweden rose and fewer people baked their own semlor. Dropping the association between the bun and Shrove Tuesday allows shops to sell the pastry throughout the spring period, although Swedes will often jokingly debate about the exact date after which it's acceptable to start eating semlor.
There's yet another name for the semla, used when it's eaten in a bowl of hot milk, a custom still practised around Sweden by some. Then, it's a hetvägg, which in modern Swedish means 'hot wall' but is actually from an earlier borrowing from Low German hetweggen, which meant 'hot bun'.
Semlor fill the shelves of cafes and bakeries across the country during the period of Lent, and these days there are plenty of quirky takes on the recipe you can taste as well. Look out for semlor flavoured with different nuts, fruit or chocolate, or formed in different ways such as the semmelwrap (semla wrap) which has the advantage of being much easier to eat on the go. The bravest foodies can even try hybrid recipes such as prinsesssemlor, the nacho semla bun or, for the strongest stomachs only, the surströmming (that's fermented herring) semla.
And finally, if you're interested in the history behind more essential Swedish food vocabulary, check out these previous entries in our word of the day series: kanelbulle, smörgås, raggmunk, prinskorv, gröt, kex, and munsbit.
Var kan jag hitta stans bästa semla?
Where can I find the best semla in town?
Vem älskar inte semlor?
Who doesn't love semla buns?