What is "hygge?" A Study in Scandinavia: Q&A with PhD Candidate Janet Connor

Division of the Social Sciences

Oxford Dictionaries shortlisted the wildly popular and difficult to translate Danish word “hygge” for the 2016 word of the year. According to OD, it refers to “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture).”


This got us thinking—why don’t we have a word like this in English? Luckily, we have colleagues in Linguistic Anthropology to offer some insight. Doctoral student and Fulbright grantee Janet Connor studies the semiotics of national sentiment in Scandinavia, which serendipitously, includes the concept in Norwegian culture of “koselig,” a close sibling to hygge. She was willing to help shed some light on the topic for us.


SOCIAL SCIENCES: Why (in your view) do some cultures have a concept like “hygge” and words for it, that are not easily translatable into English? For instance, mys (Swedish), hygge (Danish), koselig (Norwegian), gezelligheid (Dutch), gemutlicheit (German), heimishe (Yiddish), and уют (Russian/ Bulgarian)—not that these words are equivalent!


CONNOR: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that hygge and related concepts generally come from places with long, cold winters. Probably the strongest association with hygge (or at least with Norwegian koselig) is candlelight, so you don’t need hygge if you live somewhere where you can comfortably sit outside year-round or with longer winter days. At least in the Norwegian context, koselig is closely related to ideas about Norwegians’ relationship with nature—there’s an idea that you can only really appreciate koselig-ness after spending time out in the snow.


SOCIAL SCIENCES: What is the significance of hygge in the Danish context? Does this significance change dramatically when taken out of context (e.g. in holiday marketing)?


CONNOR: Danish hygge is actually a borrowing from Norwegian. Hygge is a Norwegian word too, but it means something more like “nice” (as in nice to see you, meet you, etc.). For this concept, Norwegians use koselig instead of hygge—that is, Norwegians use koselig as an adjective the way that Danes use hygge. The use of koselig is similar to Danish hygge, but there are some minor differences. For instance, there’s such a thing as uhygge (un-hygge), but I’ve never heard anyone in Norway talk about ukoselig…


From a Norwegian folk perspective, it isn’t surprising at all that the Danes got the idea from the Norwegians because of their historical relationship, where Denmark was the more “developed” country that ruled the “backward,” rural Norway. I’ve always thought of koselig as closely related to Norway’s history as a poor, rural, harsh place. Now that Norway is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Norwegians romanticize their past poverty—koselig is candles and cabins in the woods, not electric lights or cities. This goes back to the idea that, even as Norway industrializes, the country has never gotten far away from its roots in nature, which keep Norwegians grounded in the chaos of modern life in cities.


Koselig is a big deal in Norway. It follows a fascination among Norwegians of defining what is “typically Norwegian.” It can mean a lot of things, but it’s wrapped up in images of candles, wool, cabins out in nature, and popular Norwegian food like waffles. The nominal form, kos, is frequently associated with fredagskos (literally “Friday coziness”), where, at the end of the week, family or friends gather at home, light candles and a fire in the fireplace, and it’s at least theoretically one of the only times when children are allowed to eat candy and chips. (Fridays are also when Norwegians eat tacos, which I guess have been included in Norwegian coziness, although how that works exactly is still a mystery to me.) The verb, å kose seg, is used to generally mean “to enjoy oneself,” often, but not always, by taking part in traditionally koselig activities. In practice, koselig probably looks different today than it did 40 years ago. A koselig evening, for example, will likely include a bottle of Italian or French red wine, which would have been prohibitively expensive for many Norwegians a few decades ago.


With koselig, I see a sort of tension between handmade/homemade things and marketing. On the one hand, there’s an idea that koselig things are homemade: simple food, knitwear, theoretically even people’s vacation cabins, although many of those have gotten fancier. But at the same time, you do see koselig being used in marketing. For instance, there’s an advertisement for KiMs-brand potato chips that suggests, no KiMs, no kos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqyuToaipsM). The Marius design (https://www.marius.no/) is also frequently associated with koselig, but aside from just knitting the sweater yourself, you can also buy all sorts of products that have it printed on them.


SOCIAL SCIENCES: Could you briefly explain your own research, and whether or not such concepts relate?


CONNOR: My research relates to koselig as part of a bundle of concepts that are frequently described as “typically Norwegian,” along with peace, quiet, and security (ro, stillhet, and trygghet). The Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad has written a lot about these. There’s an idea that all of these things are hard to find in cities, which becomes a problem when we think about the future of Oslo, which is currently one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. For my dissertation, I look at how several different imagined futures of Oslo and Norway are converging in a neighborhood in central Oslo, and how neighbors are taking up different scales (urban/rural, local/global, citizen/foreign) to challenge standard understandings of Norwegian belonging. I ask: how do people try to live and work together around a common identity not based in sameness, but in difference from one another?


As part of my research, I ask how these concepts are being taken up by people who are trying to improve the city. Probably the most visible example is how the local public library was recently renovated—it’s now filled with light wood and green sofas instead of bright orange and white linoleum. There are, however, many other practices people are adopting to make the neighborhood feel more like a small village than the center of the capital city.


At the same time, I ask whether people are also challenging the standard meanings of these “typically Norwegian” concepts, making them more inclusive, or at least changing the boundaries the define them. A lot of these categories can be used to naturalize boundaries between groups. My Masters thesis, for example, was about the ways that “ethnic Norwegians” naturalize distinctions between themselves and foreign migrants by labeling migrants as “noisy” while they are “quiet.” Since I’m doing a joint PhD in linguistics, I’m interested in investigating these questions by looking closely at the way people speak. Norway, traditionally, has a wide array of dialects compared to most of the rest of Western Europe, and along with that there’s still a divide between the Danish-influenced Norwegian spoken by people from Oslo and dialects from other parts of the country. I’m interested in how this history affects what is happening now. How do these older internal divisions affect the way people are understanding newer forms of difference? I haven’t done my dissertation fieldwork yet, so I don’t have any definitive answers at the moment, but this is the direction I’m thinking of.