Is “hyggelig” always positive?

by Michael Seckler

Before I start writing this: I am certainly not an expert of danish history, and, as a non-danish-speaker, especially not of danish words. Therefore please look at the following thoughts on the word “hyggelig” as a “thinking out loud”-article. I’m open to conviction by anybody who knows more about this.

So why writing about a word anyways? Especially one that sounds as strange as “hyggelig”? Maybe because it seems that “hyggelig” is not only hard to pronounce but also hard to fully understand.

Coffe Place in Downtown Arhus

Coffee place in downtown Arhus

What does it mean? In the most narrow understanding the word simply means “nice” or “good”. In the broader understanding, however, the word has plenty of connotations which go beyond this simple definition. “Intimacy”, “security”, “giving solace” or “small but nice” are notions connected to hyggelig. Now the word already becomes harder to grasp. What is it? A feeling? A condition? Or a form of appearance? The answer is: it can be all of that. Everything and everybody can be hyggelig in Denmark.

Before we just accept that it is untranslatable and go for circular definitions à la “hyggelig is when it’s hyggelig” let’s have look at the etymology of the word. It stems from the Norwegian word “hygge” which is closest to “comforting” and is related to the English word “hug”. Since the word was adopted by the Danes in the 19th century, it developed to the point that today it is sometimes used synonymous with “typically danish”. If this mix of feelings and connotations is used to describe danish mentality in general, it’s worth it to give it a closer look.

Taken together the above mentioned meanings show a purely positive picture. Cozy, nice and intimate: Who would not like that? However, “cozy” can mean completely different things for different persons. Looking at my personal 8-month experience in Denmark I got the impression that another idea is central to the concept of hyggelig: the idea of homogeneity.

Historically this seems to make sense. Denmark in the 16th and 17th century was part of multi-ethnic, religiously heterogeneous and multi-lingual kingdom. However, as the consequence of a series of lost wars the danish territory shrank constantly during the following two centuries. Denmark went from being a major power in the region to become a small state. With the rise of danish nationalism the Danes made a virtue of a necessity and established their new smallness and homogeneity as central for danish identity. It was – among other reasons – this special feeling of coherence and identification with the state that helped to establish the danish welfare system and to make it become an international role model.

 However, this historic perspective could add another layer to the meaning of hyggelig. It seems like a notion of exclusiveness is mingled into the concept.

Immigration to Denmark for example is often perceived as a threat to a welfare system, that was based on the ideal of cultural homogeneity. This perception is clearly visible in Denmark’s immigration policy, which is right now the strictest in Europe.

 Looking at the city of Arhus I wonder whether this mentality could be one of the reasons for the clearcut line between the lifestyle of the center and the outskirts. Visiting these two areas is visiting two different worlds. The center is coined by the beautiful old town, cozy coffee places and a generally hyggelig atmosphere. Seven kilometers west you find Gellerupparken, Denmark’s biggest building complex with more than 80% of the inhabitants being immigrants of the first or second generation. A manifestation of failed integration.

Marketplace "Bazar Vest" in the outskirt Brabrand (Arhus)

Marketplace “Bazar Vest” in the outskirt Brabrand (Arhus)

Maybe I’m wrong and hyggelig means nothing more than “cozy” and “nice”. In this case I’m sorry for questioning something that describes beautiful things like the pieces of art they serve for coffee in downtown Arhus.

If, however, hyggelig implicitly helps preserving an out-dated and artificial form of homogeneity, I suggest to think about alternatives.

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