My mom was the one who told me, after hearing it from Betsy Brown, a close friend in Atlanta.
“It’s just so hoogly,” she said, describing that perfect cozy feeling when you’re snuggled right where you want to be with the exact people you want to be snuggled with.
Betsy told her it was a Danish word. They knew they weren’t pronouncing it right, but they couldn’t figure out how it was supposed to be so we all just said “hoogly,” softened and lengthened with a Southern accent.
Over the years, various moments were deemed hoogly, usually family gatherings at the beach or Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons sitting around playing games.
I’d occasionally try to figure out the proper pronunciation. At a dinner party in Seattle, I met a man who grew up in Denmark. He tried to teach me. Staring at his mouth, straining to compute the strange sounds I was hearing, I garbled out a phlegmy “huh-yoo-ghay.” I felt like the boss from the 1970s Carol Burnett Show mangling his secretary’s name “Mrs. Huh-wiggins.” The man’s horrified look made it clear I was way off, so I stuck with hoogly.
My friend Kellie, a fellow Georgian, moved to Denmark. Surviving her first dark, lonely winter there, she described her budding comprehension of the candles in every window, and how the Danes turn inward during those months, cooking meals and creating warmth in the interior spaces. It gave me new perspective on the origins and purpose of hoogliness. We had each lived in the Pacific Northwest and become familiar with grey winters and the impact they have on social interaction.
Weather, I’ve realized, determines a culture. A New York friend who went to college in North Carolina and spent a summer there told me, “People say Southerners are lazy. Now I know it’s not laziness, it’s just too damn hot to do anything.” That sun and warmth, I believe, underlie Southern hospitality—and the way people interact in southern climes like Africa, the Caribbean, and India. When it’s warm, you have time to move leisurely, greeting one another and chatting. When you live in a colder, wetter, darker place, you rush from car to building or subway to home. The weather’s not conducive to lingering and visiting outside.
I visit Kellie in Copenhagen and see that she is hooglying up her house, with custom teas, soft blankets, and candles. We both read “The Year of Living Danishly” in which the British ex-pat author devotes a whole chapter to hygge. “It’s hard to explain,” her new Danish friend says. “It’s just something that all Danes know about. It’s like having a cosy time. Staying home and having a cosy, candlelit time is hygge. Bakeries are hygge and dinner with friends is hygge. You can have a hygge time. And there’s often alcohol involved.”
So hoogliness is more complicated than I knew. It’s also a coping strategy, a kind of self-care. Here again, cultures collide in my brain as I think about American messages on the merits of striving, productivity, and a strong work ethic. I don’t recall any ad campaigns about being hoogly.
I swim with a group that meets at 6 a.m. That is a painful time of day for me. Each day that I go, I wrestle against myself to make it. This morning I got up, put on my swimsuit, dressed, brushed my teeth and discovered I was 10 minutes ahead of schedule. I decided to lie down on the couch. After a minute, I realized I’d be more comfortable in a bed. I went to the guest room. After a couple minutes there, I realized I’d rather be snuggling with my family. I got back in my bed, where my daughter had crawled in during the night. I melted down into the warm pocket between my husband and daughter, listening to the dog snoring on the floor. It was pure hoogliness.
Three hours later, walking my daughter to school, I lifted my shirt to show her my bathing suit and confessed what I had done. “I had to make a choice,” I said, seeking to impart some life lesson from my failure. “Swimming would have been good for my strength. Going back to bed with you and daddy was good for my happiness.”
With a child’s wisdom she responded, “Both are important.”
Lynn Heinisch’s career has included reporting from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East for humanitarian agencies, and working as a journalist, speechwriter for CEOs, communications director, and high-tech media relations officer. Now she’s writing her own stories.