English borrows words from many different languages, but German can be particularly useful for more abstract words that just don’t have equivalents in English, without using the best part of a sentence.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines Schadenfreude, for example, as “the malicious enjoyment of the misfortune of others” – there genuinely isn’t a more concise way to express what it means.
And the same applies for Gemütlichkeit. Both gemütlich and Gemütlichkeit (the adjective and the noun) are now included in the OED.
Gemütlichkeit is perhaps best translated in one word as “cosiness”, but the English word can only express one aspect of the German meaning.
As in English, Gemütlichkeit or cosiness is epitomized by a snug room with a sofa nestled next to a roaring open fire, but the German word also describes the friendly, jovial atmosphere, and the resulting state of mind.
The OED proves this point by defining Gemütlichkeit as “the quality of being pleasant cheerful; cosy, snug, homely; genial, good-natured”. What a mouthful.
And it can go further to describe a feeling of belonging (also summed up in one German word – Zugehörigkeitsgefühl), or peace of mind and social acceptance.
A traditional Christmas market such as this one in Trier, Rhineland-Palatinate, could also be described as gemütlich. Photo: DPA
As the days get shorter and the weather colder, there's no doubt you'll long for a bit of Gemütlichkeit on the way back from work in the frozen dark.
And you will probably notice that, as winter approaches, it has become an essential descriptor for German friends, who use it to refer to a whole host of things from people, to a beer in a warm pub, to evenings watching a film.
The word instantly conjures up the perfect situation: a candle-lit room, comfy sofa, cup of something hot, and a someone else to cuddle up with. Or, just as easily, a meander through a glowing town centre selling waffles and candied almonds. A feeling of true wintry contentedness.
Although now an accepted word in English, it is yet to seep truly into everyday language.
However, the city of Jefferson in Wisconsin, which prides itself on its German heritage, calls itself “The Gemütlichkeit City”. It also celebrates the ‘Gemütlichkeit Days’ in mid-September. The event, which has been running since 1971, is described as a “community festival to build spirit and unity by celebrating our community’s German heritage in a family friendly atmosphere”.
So, whether it’s a Christmas market, a really nice night in with friends, or just a day spent whiling away the hours with a good book and a few mugs of Glühwein, there’s only one word that can really describe it: Gemütlichkeit.
By Alexander Johnstone