Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Bear service

A highly useful Swedish and German expression, with no immediate equivalent in English, is “bear service” (“björntjänst” resp. “Bärendienst”). The English “disservice” comes close, but has a less appealing ring and does not emphasize the usually good intentions behind it as strongly.

The story from which this phrase arose deals with a farmer and a bear who were good friends. One day the farmer is bothered by a wasp, which lands on his head. Wishing to help his friend, the bear dispatches of the wasp with one mighty blow. Unfortunately, the bear did not factor in that humans are far more fragile than bears—and the farmer was just as dead as the wasp.


While this story is likely fictional, similar events have actually happened. So I have heard claimed that the Sigfried-and-Roy incident where a tiger nearly killed one of them was of a similar character: The tiger merely tried to carry his friend to safety, just like it may have carried its young by the scruff of the neck. The neck of a human, however, is less well protected than that of a tiger—and tragedy almost ensued.

Common causes for such bear services include incompetence in execution; well-meaning, but misguided, decisions; and attempts to help someone without having a sufficiently clear understanding of what the “helpee” actually wants and what actually would benefit him.

Notably, many software features fall in this category through making incorrect (or over-generalized) assumptions about what users want or need.


The semi-joking German portmanteau “Verschlimmbesserung”, an attempt to make things better that actually makes them worse, covers somewhat similar ground—especially, when it comes to software.

(A literal translation is tricky; however, the original mixes “Verbesserung”/“improvement” with “Verschlimmerung”/“worsening”.)