German words expats should know: Gemütlichkeit
As long as the Danish have had hygge, the Germans have had Gemütlichkeit. We take a look at this famously-untranslatable, evocative word and explain why it is such a central part of life in Germany.
You’re in your house on a cold winter’s day. The rain is lashing down outside, but inside the fire’s on; you’ve got your feet up and a good book in your hands. That’s very gemütlich.
But what’s also gemütlich is exploring one of Germany’s famous Christmas markets with family, browsing handmade trinkets, and then stopping for a steaming cup of Glühwein. Or equally, gemütlich could be a scene in the summer: the day is just beginning to dim, and you’re sitting in a beer garden, laughing with friends.
Gemütlichkeit is one of the most famous German concepts, used to describe a state of cosiness, contentment and wellbeing. It’s similar to the Danish concept of hygge, but it’s not necessarily centred around the home. Rather than something tangible, it’s a state of feeling.
Gemütlichkeit comes from “gemütlich”, which itself is an adjectival form of the word “Gemüt” - which translates to state of mind, temper, disposition or mood. When you add the “-lich” suffix to turn it into an adjective, it describes something that puts you into a positive mental state. With the addition of the “-keit” suffix (to turn it back into a noun - we know, it’s confusing), we get a word to describe the feeling of having a mental state that is at peace or entirely content.
Gemütlichkeit in English
Look at that relatively complicated explanation, and you’ll see why the simple dictionary definition of Gemütlichkeit in English - cosiness or comfort - doesn’t quite cut it. This is because cosiness is a relatively shallow sensation, whereas Gemütlichkeit layers physical sensations with mental ones: crucial to it are the senses of friendliness, peace of mind, and belonging.
For many Germans, Gemütlichkeit is intrinsically related to the warm, cosy feeling you get when interacting with other people you feel comfortable with. It’s therefore strongly linked to a sense of community or comradeship.
This makes more sense when you look at the history of the word. The current use of Gemütlichkeit derives from its use during the Biedermeier period. Falling between the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815 and the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars of 1848, during a time of heavy industrialisation, this was a period that idolised home and family, simple and functional design, and practical hobbies.
German Gemütlichkeit: It’s just something you feel
So, now you’re clued up on how Germans really feel when they speak of Gemütlichkeit, you can start dishing out this word whenever the feels hit you. “Wir trinken heute Abend gemütlich Glühwein!”
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