Monday, 18 November 2013

The Cosy Mood of Brave England

Cosy is an inadequate word. It reeks of childish nostalgia and brings to mind snivelling estate agents trying to fob off inconveniently small living spaces. The word is often used to translate the Swedish mys and German gemütlich, yet these words hold a place in the hearts of Swedes and Krauts incomparable to the lowly position where cosy is regarded by the English. Cosy is quite nauseating and sentimental because of the way it has been co-opted by shrewd advertising executives seeking to manipulate consumers’ emotions in order to screw them out of a few quid come Christmas time.

It is this disdain for the concept of cosiness, seeing it as nothing but a vague feeling of comfort with no clearly defined value, utilised by shysters and idiots for insignificant purposes, that prevents us from sympathising with the way in which our Germanic cousins perceive the equivalent terms.

Gemütlich is ruthlessly dismissed by the Irish Francophile, Samuel Beckett in Mercier and Camier where it is used in the dishonest way in which cosy is so frequently employed.

“It’s snug…said the man, there is no other word. Patrick! He cried. But there was another word, for he added, in a tone of tentative complicity, whatever that sounds like, It’s … gemütlich.”
The drunken Mercier later chides the manager of the inn for using such language, “You have a curious way of managing, for a manager. What have you done with your teeth? Is this what you call gemütlich?”

Though far from an Englishman, Beckett was guilty of the English speaker’s prejudice against cosiness. My Swedish ex-girlfriend stressed to me the importance of mys on many an occasion but it took time for me to realise that this was not a universally understood concept and indeed the German regards gemütlich differently from how the Swede thinks of myset. In an effort to understand, I volunteered the cosy image of a log fire and learned that this was indeed considered mys. Yet other concepts of English cosiness were excluded from the Swedish definition, including for example houses with carpets, for these are alien to the pine wood floors of a Scandinavian home. Thus it seems mys is necessarily Swedish as much as gemütlich must be German in character. The people of these nations perceive these concepts in terms of the consolation they enjoy when experiencing the familiar and homely comforts that are proper to their respective peoples. Thus cosiness is inherently un-cosmopolitan. It is national. It is not universal or properly translatable, which is why cosy can never express what is truly meant by our continental cousins. The words mys and gemütlich are each used more frequently and less self-consciously than English words like snug or cosy. I suspect the true English equivalent is a satisfied exhalation prior to a leisurely gulp of ale.

There is a common link in language and feeling between us all though. Although the word mys is sometimes meant as snuggle and can even have sexual connotations (you know how Swedes are these days), the Swedish for brave is modig which is etymologically related to gemütlich which comes from gemüet “mind, mentality”, equivalent to gemüt “mind, soul.” Swedish modig can also mean “valiant, high spirited, courageous”, which is precisely what the Old English word módig (pronounced moody) used to mean. We still have a remnant of this word with the modern English mood. So how did brave become moody in England and cosy in Germany? Well, the Old English noun mód could mean mood in general, but was also related to what we now call the ego or the will. It was associated with arrogance, pride, violence and power but was also used in other words with very different associations. The adjective ánmód means steadfast, fierce, resolute” while módcearig means sorrowful of heart.” Thus mood was used to describe emotion, mind, heart and will. 

Swedish, English and German are all descended from a common language known as Proto-Germanic, which in turn comes from Indo-European. The reconstructed proto-Germanic equivalent of mood is  mōdą, mōdaz “sense, courage, zeal, anger” and the Proto-Indo-European is -, - “endeavour, will, temper.” The brave meaning of mood is retained in other Germanic languages such as Dutch moed and Scots mude, muid, but the Icelandic móður, meaning “grief, moodiness”, is more similar to the English word moody.

We still understand mood to designate distinct atmospheric emotions, yet to be moody is now exclusively negative. This might have something to do with the Old English word ofermod which means “pride” and has therefore been regarded as a sin for centuries.But it's interesting to consider when one is in a “good mood” that these two words are etymologically related to words meaning God and soul. Little wonder that gemütlich is so important to the Germans; for mood and atmosphere which put us in touch with our national past and the associated aesthetics, remind us of our position in space and time. The familiar and consoling effect of architecture, interior design, art and old fashioned activities remind us of who we are, speaking to our “heart, mind, soul” and easing the módcearig of the modern age.
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