People around the world have long benefited from what Denmark has to offer those who live outside its borders. Famous exports from this relatively small country include Lego™, Danish furniture design and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. In the UK, interest in our Nordic neighbours has also risen as many have become hooked on the various Scandinavian thriller series now shown on British TV, including Denmark’s The Killing.
The latest Danish offering has arrived in the English-speaking world in the form of a word rather than a product or TV show. I first came across this term as I scoured an article claiming to reveal the Danish secret to raising happy children. As a mother of two, I was naturally intrigued to know what I could do to make my young offspring as happy as the Danes. I discovered that the answer, as put forward by the writer of the article, lay in bringing more “hygge” into our lives.
Although this word has only recently come into use among non-Danish speakers, it’s already made quite an impression. With no direct translation, hygge, pronounced /hʊgə/ or /h(j)uːgə/, involves getting cosy and enjoying life’s pleasures. Unsurprisingly, retailers haven’t missed the opportunity to cash in on this trend and if you go into any modern homeware shop in Britain, you’re likely to notice a lot of Scandinavian-inspired home accessories. Soft cushions, candles, and pieces of furniture made from natural materials all help build the perfect hygge scene.
While creating a calm, homely atmosphere is one part of hygge, the concept is about more than your environment. In its true form, hygge is about taking time to savour the moment, either on your own or with the people around you. This could mean enjoying a meal with friends, taking a relaxing bath or curling up on the sofa with a good book. The key is to fully appreciate what’s happening and avoid distractions. With all this in mind, it seems hardly surprising that hygge has been linked to Denmark’s ranking as one of the world’s happiest nations. It is also perhaps no coincidence that our growing interest in hygge has come at a time of political upheaval in the United Kingdom and the United States.
While many endorsements of the art of hygge can be found on social media and in the shops, there’s also been a growing backlash. If you do a search for hygge on the Internet, you’ll see titles such as, “Enough with the hygge already!” and “Hygge: The dark side of Danish comfort…” Those who don’t agree with the hype about hygge label it as smug and boring, and point out that cosiness and a good atmosphere are not exclusively Danish qualities, but qualities that have been embraced within many cultures for centuries.
Love it or hate it, hygge is becoming more and more common in English, and even made the shortlist for 2016’s Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. It is used not only as a noun in its own right, but also before other nouns as a modifier. You can have a hygge experience or moment, enjoy a hygge dinner or visit a hygge home.
Hygge in all its forms is a loanword, the term we use for words that we adopt from other languages. Other words from Scandinavia that have recently begun to appear more frequently in English include “fika”, a Swedish word used to describe the custom of taking a break for a hot drink and often a baked treat, and “lagom”, another Swedish word, meaning lack of excess. Can you guess which Scandinavian languages these better-known loanwords come from?*
*See the Word Origin section of each OALD entry to find out.
Only time will tell whether hygge, like these other words, is here to stay in the English language, or whether it will just be a flash in the pan. Whatever its fate, as the digital world draws us away from simpler pastimes and pleasures, perhaps we’d all benefit from following the example of the Danes and “hygge-fying” our lives a little more.
Hygge is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.
Leonie Hey is an Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011. She is bringing hygge to Oxford one cake at a time.