Alongside the more predictable (and depressing) words and phrases of the year in 2016, such as ‘Brexit’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘alt-right’, was the much more positive-sounding Danish-Norwegian word hygge.
With very little hint of irony, this supposedly untranslatable Danish word was explained, described, examined and otherwise deployed again and again as the year wore on. The subject of many articles in Sunday newspaper lifestyle supplements and consumer magazines, and often illustrated through pictures of candles, wooly jumpers and beautifully presented open sandwiches, hygge tended to be translated as ‘something like a sense of coziness’. The authors and others doing the describing had always to underline the inexact nature of their translation since one of the key attributes of hygge is that it is ‘untranslatable’. Another of the key attributes of hygge is that it should be understood as a state that just ‘is’ – there is no sure-fire means of achieving it, and any blueprint for reaching a state of hygge would be an oxymoronic exercise. That certainly didn’t stop anyone trying, however, and as Christmas neared whole displays of self-help hygge instruction and lifestyle books appeared in bookstores across the land!
So far, so … normal and predictable, then?! There doesn’t appear to be much of ‘geographies of heritage’ interest here. Or is there….?
I am always suspicious when a word that is indicating a situation, an attitude or state psychological wellbeing is so easily related to a sense of nationhood, or supposedly natural character. Wikipedia suggests that hygge has a ‘unique definition’, but what does that mean? Surely any and every word can have a ‘unique definition’? Indeed, if I were being a bit naughty, I might put forward the English word nice as an untranslatable word with a unique definition, to be deployed both when something is liked or disliked, often used simply to fill a gap in a sentence, and probably only to be understood in the context of who is saying it and in which situation. But perhaps I shouldn’t over-think these things? After-all hygge is such a warm and glowing word, and is usually deployed in a manner that is as positive as it is sincere. It sometimes seems that 2016 brought precious little joy to the world, so we should cherish hygge as a word-of-the-year to be celebrated, in its suggestion of coziness and companionship that sometimes seemed to be in short supply.
This happy acceptance of the word was fine for a while, but what I cannot quite rid myself of, however, is the implicit suggestion that the untranslatability of hygge might be used to create boundaries. And sure enough, when I was in Denmark in the Autumn an article appeared in the Danish newspaper Politiken, which included some interviews with supporters of the Danish People’s Party: hygge was Danish – and understanding it, and even doing it ‘correctly’ was in the preserve of the Danes. Immigrants to Denmark cannot have hygge because they are not Danish.
You need to be ‘Danish’ in order to understand what hygge really meant. The word is not just ‘untranslatable’, but is also unavailable to anyone but true Danes. Indeed, it can be deployed in a fashion that leaves it hanging out in front of you – as something wonderful, but forever out of reach. All of a sudden, the self-help guides seem to have a much more sinister overtone – manuals that carefully and lovingly describe how the reader can never be ‘Danish’.
As we approached Christmas, a very good article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, added some further depth to the issue:
It is through these means that hygge can become a device for marking distinction; of insider and outsider – of citizen and non-citizen. And since hygge is essentialised as ‘untranslatable’, then it can act as a social code that is forever out of reach for certain people. It would be overtly racist (and probably illegal) to cast non-Danes as explicitly ‘inferior beings’, but the deployment of hygge can perhaps sometimes herald a more subtle form of exclusion.
Of course, the word hygge does not automatically contain any active sense of exclusion. Indeed, I would say that any attempt to use the word in that manner would be uhyggelig – ‘un-cozy’! But for this openness to be apparent requires an acceptance that what hygge means remains equally ‘untranslatable’ for everyone, and unhooked from any national stereotype, rather than as something that requires arbitration. If that were the case, then hygge would certainly be nice.