What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

Guest writer Meik Wiking on the concept of hygge.


Hygge, lagom, sisu : These days Nordic loan words seem to have become our fastest-growing export since crime fiction and new Nordic cuisine. But what are the magic ingredients behind these concepts that have made the rest of the world fall in love with them?

Danish hygge has been described as “conscious cosiness” while Swedish lagom is shorthand for balance or moderation. Finnish sisu, on the other hand, translates as strength, determination, and guts.

It all started a couple of years ago when hygge began making waves in the international media. Since then, it has grown into a global lifestyle trend, with more than 500 titles dedicated to the topic available through Amazon’s UK site – one of which is authored by me. My book has been translated into more than 35 languages and it has sold more than one million copies. Some of the numerous reader letters I have received from around the world can help us understand exactly what makes this trend so attractive. Many are variations of “I’ve been doing hygge all my life; I just didn’t know there was a word for it.”

Our words reflect our world. We give the things we see – things that matter – names. In the 1880s, the anthropologist Franz Boas, while living with the Inuit people of Northern Canada, became intrigued by the Inuit language, which had words such as aqilokoq, “softly falling snow” and piegnartoq for snow suitable for sledding.

The word hygge has helped us remove guilt from life’s simple pleasures.

Following these discoveries, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the 1940s stated that a culture’s language both reflects how people experience their world and affects their actions in it. In today’s context, just consider for a moment how words like “fake news” or “climate change” reflect our view of the world and affect how we navigate in it.

Shakespeare famously wrote in Romeo and Juliet “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” By naming things, we recognise their value.

Obviously, before the spread of the word hygge, Danes were not the only ones able to enjoy the pleasure that comes from sitting by a fire and sipping a steaming mug of mulled wine in good company. However, while Danish pastries enjoyed in front of an open fire may taste just as sweet by any other name, Danes see hygge as a precious part of their culture: as something of value, something we should strive for, enjoy, and celebrate. Perhaps that is the real power of the little word hygge – the removal of guilt from life’s simple pleasures. Or, as a woman from France, wrote me:

“Earlier I would spend afternoons with my two kids doing nothing except cuddle up in blankets, drink tea, and eat biscuits. Previously, I would have felt guilty about it and called it a lazy afternoon. Now I call it a hygge afternoon.”


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