The Danish word "hygge" (pronounced, very approximately, "hooga") means something like "cosiness", but with undertones of "camaraderie" and "wellbeing". Denmark's tourist industry likes to suggest that it's untranslatable and unexportable: the only way to feel it is to hop on a plane to Copenhagen.
It's also a cherished part of the national character, which explains the recent uproar over a video released by the tourism agency VisitDenmark, a cack-handed attempt at viral marketing in which an attractive, blond Danish woman claims to be trying to trace the father of her baby. "You were on vacation here in Denmark... I was on my way home, and I think you had lost your friends," she says. "We decided to go down to the water to have a drink... I don't even remember your name... We were talking about Denmark, and the thing we have here, hygge... And I guess I decided to show you what hygge's all about, because we went back to my house, and we ended up having sex. The next morning, when I woke up, you were gone." Worse than the implication of loose morals, it seemed, was the misinterpretation of hygge. Sex between two old friends could maybe, just about, be (to use the adjectival form) hyggelig. Impulsive, anonymous sex between strangers? Never.
Such are the perils of trying to translate the allegedly untranslatable. In fact, these days, linguists don't have much time for the idea that truly untranslatable words really exist. (Did you know the Inuit have 17 different words for "tired urban myth about Inuit languages"?) But there are certainly words that aren't easily translated and they frequently relate to feelings. Without the slightest bit of hard evidence, I've got to believe this makes a concrete difference to our emotional lives: if you don't have a readily accessible label for a feeling such as "hygge", might that not help edge it out of your emotional range, or at least from the kinds of things you find time in your schedule to do? Our English talk about happiness is usually about pleasure, excitement or (occasionally) fulfilment. There are no English-language self-help books on How To Live A Hyggelig Life.
Hard-to-translate emotions aren't always positive, of course: the Portuguese "saudades" refers to a particular kind of longing, and the Korean "han" is a form of collectively felt resentment in the face of injustice, blended with lamentation. But the sense of cosiness embodied by "hygge" is especially interesting because something like it occurs again and again in non-English languages: German "Gemütlichkeit" is similar, as is Czech "pohoda" and Dutch "gezelligheid". There is, it seems, significant demand for this kind of friendly, secure, usually home-based warmth.
I've never really seen the appeal of cosiness of the English variety, because it seems so passive and lazy: apparently, I'm just not the sort to enjoy dragging the duvet to the sofa, making a cup of hot chocolate and bingeing on old episodes of ER. But hygge, a Danish friend explains, "is a conscious activity. 'Let's go to my house and cosy' – it doesn't make sense in English. But hygge is a verb as well as an adjective. It's something you do."
That's more like it: not vegging out, but actively weaving the fabric of friendship and ease. There ought to be a word for it. firstname.lastname@example.org