That glow from Denmark – all in our heads?

A little hygge may be just what we need as we head into the northern winter.

Ann Hermes/File
Kelly and Chris Dalmass have dinner with their children at their home on May 7, 2012 in Moorsetown, New Jersey.

With a gentle but firm rebuke, a friend made clear the other day that it was high time for me to stop expecting to be in a dreary mood just because it was cold and gray and rainy outside.

“Coziness,” she suggested, was rather the state of mind to be cultivated under such circumstances – all warm lamplight and comfy chairs to curl up in, with maybe a companionable cat or two. 

She might have pointed me to another vogue word that’s been, if not exactly hot, then at least enjoying a certain warm glow of late in the English-
speaking world: hygge.

Come again?

As defined by Macmillan’s crowdsourced Open Dictionary, it’s “a type of lifestyle practiced in Denmark where the focus is on simple pleasures, comfort and cosiness, and spending time with friends and family. 

“Hygge could be families and friends getting together for a meal, with the lighting dimmed, or it could be time spent on your own reading a good book,” with the lighting presumably not dimmed. 

Hygge made it onto the shortlists for a number of dictionaries’ “words of the year” for 2016, including Oxford and Collins. British bookstores abound with titles like “The Art of Hygge: How to Bring Danish Cosiness Into Your Life.” 

Not everyone is amused: The Spectator, in London, called hygge “the most annoying word of the year,” snarking further, “The appetite to be Danish has never before been so developed, except among Danes.”

But I imagine Danish tourism officials are over the moon.

I found some pronunciation guidance, by the way, from a YouTube clip of a photogenic Danish couple captured in New York’s Times Square. The man pronounces the h-word effortlessly, several times. The tricky part is that first vowel, like the German “ü” or what the French call “Greek i.” Then comes a hard “g,” followed by the unstressed “a” of “tuba.”

He calls the word “untranslatable” – at which point the woman nevertheless begins to translate: “It means you’re having a really good time and you’re really comfortable, and everything is so nice.”

Among the words that pop up in explanations of hygge is another oft-cited “untranslatable,” the German Gemütlichkeit. Advocates and students of hygge (hyggenots? hyggenauts?) demur. They insist that hygge is different: more about one’s psychological than physical state.

But while I’m up in this particular tree, I’ll go out on a lexical limb to offer an English equivalent for the untranslatable Gemütlichkeit. It’s geniality, or maybe congeniality, because Gemütlichkeit is ascribed more to places than people. 

Gemüt can be Englished as mind or soul, or better yet, spirit. English has borrowed genius from Latin, from which we’ve also borrowed genius loci, the “spirit” of a place, its character. Places that are said to be gemütlich are places that have character.

But soon we’ll be on the other side of the December solstice. Our (Northern Hemisphere) days will be lengthening. But a little hygge – or Gemütlichkeit – may not be a bad thing.

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