January 14, 2024
The impossible task of translating the Dutch word "gezellig"
Have you ever been present at a social gathering of Dutch people when, in a quiet moment, one of them suddenly announced the word ‘gezellig?’ Did their face light up with a smile while saying it? Did everyone else in the group suddenly start nodding in agreement and muttering the same word amongst themselves?
Congratulations, you have just experienced a gezellig situation (also known as gezelligheid). I would tell you what it is, but no one has ever been able to successfully translate the word since it was first uttered by a contented Dutchman.
The impossible task of translating ‘gezellig’
The bad news is that the word gezellig is impossible to translate into English. Anyone who tells you they have worked out a translation is lying or getting mixed up with another Dutch word. There simply is no English word for gezellig. The fact that there isn't probably says a lot more about the English than the Dutch.
Many people have gone mad trying to find a single English word that contains the true meaning and power of gezellig. Does it mean cozy? Relaxed? Pleasant? Friendly? Content? Since time began, this debate has led to many arguments and broken friendships (which, ironically, are not gezellig).
The only way to accurately (and safely) translate the word gezellig may be through interpretive dance, mime or scientific equations. Even when I ask Dutch friends how they would translate the word, they don't have an answer. Even if I ask them to explain gezellig in their own language, they struggle. Words such as ‘cozy’ seem to be the closest, but not really, since they don’t “capture the true spirit of gezelligheid,” as I was once told.
If the word was ever accurately translated, Dutch society might fall apart, as if some ancient and forbidden knowledge had been accessed and the illusion of gezelligheid undone as a result. The real problem is that gezellig is a feeling, not a word. As soon as you try to pin it down with a single word, it becomes hard to explain. That’s also what makes it kind of special.
But if you had to translate gezellig?
Okay, we might not be able to translate the word directly, but we can translate the concept of it. It encompasses a feeling of warmth and coziness that comes from being in good company, whether it be with others or by yourself, enjoying life’s simple pleasures or feeling content and comfortable in the moment. It can also describe a general atmosphere of such warm and cozy feelings. But translating gezellig itself directly into a single English word, without using flowery language? Forget about it.
Many things and situations can be gezellig. Believe it or not, even a circle party can be described as gezellig given the right circumstances.
Ongezellig vs. gezellig
If we are going to talk about the word gezellig, then we also have to talk about its evil twin brother, ‘ongezellig.’ It is also hard to translate, but it likes it that way. It’s mean and does not care about your translation struggles. If gezellig wants you to feel happy, content and cosy, then ongezellig wants you to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome and awkward. It enjoys your discomfort and wants to keep you trapped in it.
How to use the word ‘gezellig’ responsibly
Luckily, even if we can’t successfully translate the word gezellig into English, we can still harness its power for our own good. If you want to fit into Dutch society, it is very important to announce things as gezellig. Simply saying the word by itself is enough.
For example, if you walk into a party, you can simply react to the situation by saying, “gezellig,” and everyone will know that you find the situation agreeable and wish to take part.
Sometimes, saying gezellig in the middle of a gezellig situation is enough to make it even more gezellig than it was. It acts as a multiplier, increasing the amount of gezelligheid. However, this is dangerous. It’s possible for a room of Dutch people to get stuck in a loop, saying the word gezellig over and over again to each other. At some point, the return on gezelligheid from saying the word will start to diminish, and things will just get awkward.
It’s also important to be careful about which situations you describe using the word gezellig. For example, if you describe a root canal as gezellig, you'll get a few odd looks, and people will seriously wonder about what you do in your free time.
The Dutch and gezellig:
It’s interesting that gezellig and gezelligheid are something that are so important to the core of being Dutch and yet, it is impossible to translate them into another language accurately. It gives it the feeling of being something very Dutch or a kind of Dutch secret. If used in the right way, the word gezellig can bring people together and create a sense of warmth and coziness that is unique to Dutch culture.
I think it’s okay that gezellig can’t be translated. Something that is about a warm and fuzzy feeling shouldn’t be easy to translate or define.
Written by Stuart Billinghurst as published in Dutch the Magazine