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hygge

noun [uncountable]

a lifestyle focussing on simple pleasures such as comfort and cosiness in the home, and spending time with friends and family

'Hygge is about creating a safe and warming atmosphere, about experiencing simple and soul-soothing pleasures and making ordinary day-to-day moments meaningful.'

Metro 8th February 2017

Be it Brexit, alt-right or the ubiquitous fake news, many of the new kids on the lexical block over the last twelve months have been reflective of the divisive, discontented attitudes of the current political climate. It's perhaps no coincidence then that in the same timeframe there's been a sharply contrasting interest in the warmth and fuzziness of hygge – a fluffy lifestyle concept offering a ray of light relief in what have turned out to be rather dark and tempestuous times.

Hygge … is a lifestyle practice with an uncomplicated premise: focussing on life's simple pleasures as a route to happiness and a feeling of well-being

Hygge (pronounced something like 'hoo-ga') is a lifestyle practice with an uncomplicated premise: focussing on life's simple pleasures as a route to happiness and a feeling of well-being. It appears to have two essential tenets – that of 'togetherness' i.e. sharing time with family and friends, and 'cosiness', i.e. creating comfortable, convivial environments in which the togetherness takes place. Classic hygge pastimes include relaxing with friends over a candlelit meal, enjoying a cycle ride and a picnic in a scenic spot, playing board games with your offspring in front of a roaring fire, or simply cosying up on the sofa with a warm drink and a slice of homemade cake. It's the simple idea of taking pleasure in everyday, unsophisticated, free-time activities.

Hygge should, in principle at least, be seamlessly integrated into the flow of day-to-day leisure, a natural extension of the food, woolly jumpers and squashy sofas already in our homes – in other words, it shouldn't 'cost' anything extra. It's therefore rather ironic that the word's rise to fame in the past year has largely been accelerated by its use as a marketing ploy – the overhyped idea that in order to create the perfect hyggeligt atmosphere, we need to buy the right cushions, wear the right clothes, and definitely light plenty of the right candles.

But scepticism aside, the word does buck the prevailing trend of a rather bleak year, encouraging us to step off the treadmill of disillusionment and take pleasure in simple things and the company of others. For that I embrace it and wonder if it might just stick around. As someone who's been gleefully lighting candles and enjoying cosy meals on the sofa for years, I secretly hope so …

Background – hygge

Hygge is from Danish, the concept thought to have originated as an antidote to the many cold, dark days characteristic of Denmark's long winters. The word dates back to the 18th century and was in fact taken from Norwegian, where it referred to taking refuge from the outside elements. In Denmark at least, hygge's potential to promote well-being doesn't appear to lack credibility – the Danes are on good form in the happiness stakes, ranked the happiest nation in the world by the UN in 2016.

Whether you buy the idea or not, hygge has certainly been a very popular export to the English language, appearing in more than one shortlist for 2016's 'Word of the Year' as produced by many dictionary publishers. There's also some evidence for use of the related adjective hyggeligt (also spelt hyggelig).

Hygge is one of the latest examples of loanwords which embed themselves in English partly because they're 'untranslatable', i.e. it's a synthesis of the concepts of cosiness, well-being, conviviality, comfort etc which can't be represented by a single English word. More established examples of this same phenomenon, where a word from another language is adopted because there's no straightforward correspondence in English, include German Schadenfreude (= a feeling of pleasure when bad things happen to someone else) and French frisson (= a sudden strong feeling of excitement, fear or pleasure).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published 2nd May 2017.

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