Illustration by Olivia Holden.
After two years of popularity, hygge is still on everyone’s lips. Seemingly countless articles have written about the Danish word and why it’s the key to (Danish) happiness. It’s no wonder people are intrigued: the Danes are repeatedly crowned one of the happiest countries in the world! But what is hygge? Its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a form of coziness that evokes a feeling of contentment and well-being — and as a foundational 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 just 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!). You definitely don’t mean that 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 it to someone playing video games!
And yet, the opposites of hygge and hyggelig aren’t uhygge and uhyggelig, as you might have expected. 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) with an uhyggelig film (scary movie).
Language And Cultural Reality
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 in everyday life. 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 something that no longer plays 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 centered 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, safety), which are 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 working on the concept of hygge for years and has found that the precise meaning of the word depends on a social environment. Basically, people with little money make themselves cozy in a different way 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 and drinks. What this means in detail is different for everyone and can’t be defined, let alone visualized (looking for the right photo for this article almost dropped me into despair).
Is Hygge Untranslatable?
Not quite. The word hygge does translate nicely into some other languages. And aspects of the concept can also be transferred to 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. This piece of hygge can’t be translated because it’s experienced and defined individually. So what is hygge for you?