Illustration by Olivia Holden.
After two years of popularity, hygge is still on everyone’s lips. Countless articles have written about this Danish word and why it’s the key to (Danish) happiness. It’s no wonder people are intrigued: Denmark is repeatedly crowned one of the happiest countries in the world! But what is hygge? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a kind of coziness that evokes feelings of contentment and wellbeing. It’s also an essential concept in Danish culture. Many articles on hygge mention items like candles, hot chocolate and oversized sweaters, as well as being in the company of loved ones. Sounds just like what you would call “coziness” in English, right? But what’s special about hygge and how do the Danes themselves see it?
Hygge Is More Than Just Candles
Hygge isn’t mere coziness, but rather a central aspect of Danish culture and an important part of Danish vocabulary. In short, the word hygge is more important than just a cozy gathering with people you’re fond of. Fixed expressions like Hyggeligt at møde dig (Nice to meet you) are used all the time in daily life. When you let your children play with their friends, you say: Hyg jer! (Make yourself cozy!). This doesn’t mean they should light some candles and get under a fuzzy blanket. Instead, you’re wishing them to have fun and enjoy themselves. You can even say this phrase to someone playing video games!
Interestingly, the opposites of hygge and hyggelig aren’t uhygge and uhyggelig, as you might expect. Both words exist, but they mean “fear” and “scary” respectively. Hyggelig and uhyggelig aren’t even necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, you can enjoy a hyggelig aften (cozy evening) while watching an uhyggelig film (scary movie).
Language And Culture
It’s not surprising that hygge has left its mark on the Danish language. Language is always a reflection of the people and communities that use it to communicate everyday. New words emerge when the speakers of a language need to describe new phenomena — words like smartphone or Wi-Fi are good examples. But other words such as dowry, telegram or steamboat disappear from everyday use because they describe things that no longer play a role in modern life.
In this way, words or linguistic concepts reflect the cultural history of a language community. For example, the Danish linguist Carsten Levisen wrote his doctoral thesis on 20 words that he defines as key concepts for Danish language and culture. Among them are words like hygge (coziness), lykke (happiness), jantelov (Jante’s law) or tryghed (security or safety). These are all important linguistic concepts in the Danish self-image and culture.
An Imprecise Meaning
It’s worth noting that hygge isn’t the same for everyone, but rather an individual feeling that can’t be clearly defined — even among Danes. The Danish anthropologist Jeppe Linnet has been exploring the concept of hygge for years and has found that the precise meaning of the word depends on the social environment. For example, people with little money make themselves cozy in different ways than people with a lot of money. While for some, visiting the local handball club game with friends has a high hygge factor, for others it might be the latest play at the Copenhagen theater.
All the different hygge scenarios usually have a few things in common: a safe environment, people you’re fond of and tasty food or drinks. What this means in detail is different for everyone and can’t be concretely defined, let alone visualized (finding the right image for this article was harder than you’d think!).
Is Hygge Untranslatable?
Not quite. The word hygge does translate nicely in some languages. And aspects of the concept can also be seen in other cultures. But the part of hygge that reflects security, equality and community is only found in the Danish language and reflects an important part of the Danish self-image. The central aspect of hygge can’t be translated because it’s experienced and defined individually. So what is hygge for you?