Useful Word: Gemütlichkeit

Americans may have once had deeply personal relationships with the ritual of drinking draft beer in a cozy pub, warmed by the convivial fires of human interaction, but the introduction of canned beer and the rise of the automobile dealt it a serious blow. We have since outsourced our romantic and philological connection to this experience to the Brits, our English-speaking kin. The pub is enough of an institution there that Michael Jackson devoted his first book to it. As craft brewing has brought people back out to the pub, we have cast about looking for words to describe this kind of drinking. “Session” and “moreish” have emerged (among an admittedly niche group) as handy terms. But while they point to elements of the pub experience, they don’t address it fully.

Trust the Germans to have our back. There is a word that is broader in meaning than the experience one has at a pub—but since the pub is so central to German life, the two are very often entangled. I was recently exposed to this expression, both delighted by its comprehensiveness and abashed at having never heard it before. The word is Gemütlichkeit (geh MOOT leek-height), and it’s meaning is ... well, like so many of the conjunct words in German, it’s hard to convey in English. 

Scanning the various translations, “friendliness,” “cordiality,” and “coziness” seem to be the most common renderings, but these are inadequate. I turned to my human translator, Don Scheidt, for guidance. Don wrote about Seattle beer for decades before relocating in Portland, and he’s a linguistic savant. Here’s how he translated it:

Homey, cozy comfort in amiable surroundings. So much so, that the English phrase ‘to make oneself at home’ is rendered ‘es sich gemütlich machen’ in German. In other words, to feel ‘at home’ is to feel ‘gemütlich.’

The quality of comfort within a physical space is typical across definitions, but there’s another, more important thread running through them: a social element. This is why the pub is such a common example—it captures the elements of the physical space, but also the communal experience within it. There’s something very revealing about this. The root word gemüt means “mind” or “heart” as well as “feeling.” That there’s a social component to the word is latent rather than explicit, but it’s innate in the meaning. My very first experience in Germany was at the Füchschen gasthaus in Düsseldorf. It was early evening and the post-work crowd was arriving for a drink. There was no seating left except a standing table by the door. Sally and I were waved over and for the next hour we became fast friends with our table-mates. Gemütlichkeit.

Similar concepts exist in other European languages, particularly Danish and Dutch—hygge and gezellig. But tellingly, the component of conviviality, sociability is not the central feature in hygge. The concept has recently received the mass-market onslaught that any philosophy of harmony and wellbeing gets in America. It’s an aspirational quality of Danish culture, a kind of tao of being Danish. It usually includes other people, but not always. Gezellig seems closer to Gemütlichkeit, incorporating the social aspect and, from a purely linguistic standpoint, the two seem interchangeable (to me, a speaker of neither language). But if the two have a similar meaning, there’s one substantial difference in application.

Gemütlichkeit is just more beery. Gezellig may mean something similar, but the Dutch don’t immediately associate this mood with a pub. No place associates friendliness, conviviality, and coziness so immediately with a pub as Germany. As I scoured the internet for information on the word, descriptions inevitably pointed to the pub. Christmas markets got a close second, but that’s a particular situation, saturated with other meanings and associations. The pub or beer garden—those are much more universal, calling up the warmth and coziness of a thousand visits. Where else would a German’s mind go to when thinking of Gemütlichkeit than a pub?

I especially love that Don’s description keys on the “homey” aspect, which was also mentioned by others. It suggests that when Germans think of all the best qualities of home, they think of a pub. I love that.