The Gaelic for Hygge
On a dark and freezing Monday morning in the middle of December, the people of Scotland awoke to good tidings. An upcoming trend in the world of comfort that had been identified by VisitScotland that would soon – for a price – make them feel cosy, snug, secure, and ultimately, fulfilled. This exciting development even had a (probably) lilting Gaelic name: Còsagach.
While I am a Gaelic speaker and writer, I am ready to admit that my knowledge of the language, like my knowledge of English, is not all encompassing. So I was relieved to learn, when I tweeted about this strange term, that I was not the only Gaelic speaker unfamiliar with it.
VisitScotland are clear in their opinion that this is the Gaelic equivalent of Hygge – the Danish concept that we are assured has no English equivalent but is essentially a weaponised form of cosiness. It is painfully obvious that someone in VisitScotland has looked up “snug” in an English-to-Gaelic dictionary and have struck upon Còsagach. They are now encouraging others in the tourist sector to use this term and a glance at the Còsagach hashtag will confirm it is already taking off.
Their vision of what Còsagach means is set out in the Trends 2018 report from their Insight Department:
“…Scotland is a perfect place for your well-being, so perfect in fact that a word of Scottish origin has been dedicated to that feeling of being snug, sheltered, or cosy; Còsagach.”
Who has dedicated this word? Indeed, how do you go about dedicating a word? It sounds like the sort of thing that would involve a ceremony and perhaps a ribbon-cutting. Were there nibbles and champagne? I’m starting to feel affronted that I wasn’t invited. I name this ship Còsagach. May God bless all who try to understand her.
This isn’t how language works. Marketing teams– not even those who calling themselves, with no hint of self-awareness, Insight Departments – don’t get to “dedicate” a word from a living language even if that word has fallen into disuse.
Equally revealing is the fact that they shy away from making the claim that this is a Gaelic word at all; it is “a word of Scottish origin”. Indeed the document makes not a single mention of Gaelic. This is the cake-and-eat-it school of semantic; they want the authenticity associated with Gaelic but without having to prove that the term is actually in use.
The report continues in the same unfortunate vein: “Scotland is a country where Còsagach can be achieved in all seasons…” If they had read the whole of the dictionary entry they lifted the term from, they would have learned that Còsagach is an adjective, not a noun as they are using it here.
So what does Còsagach actually mean? Of the dictionaries I have found it in, not one describes it as only meaning cosy and snug. Còsagach does appear in Edward Dwelly’s dictionary, but even there the primary definition, suitably enough, is given as “full of holes or crevices”. As great as Dwelly’s dictionary is, it was first published in 1911, so it is not an accurate reflection of contemporary usage. VisitScotland could have picked a term from an English dictionary of a similar vintage and found as few people understanding it as Còsagach. The implication behind their thinking is clear: Gaelic is inherently archaic and no one uses it. Or no one who uses it matters. If all words in Gaelic are obscure to you then how can you tell which are obscure to speakers of the language?
Even if this term were still widely used, no Gàidhlig speaker would have recommended it for this use due to its proximity to less appealing terms. It seems to share the meaning of Còsach but as Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach pointed out it’s connotations are less pleasant.
Can we not bother trying to make Gaelic Hygge a thing? Besides, Còsagach is far from the best term as it also means (from Dwelly) “full of holes, crevices”. https://t.co/XcpSm0Wjsd
— Calum L. MacLeòid (@CalumMacLeoid) December 11, 2017
Also very close to còsach, which (to me anyway) means damp, mossy and fibrous ground. Full of beasties. 🐌🐜
— Donald I Macdonald (@donald_i) December 11, 2017
Indeed a “corra-chòsag” is a wood-loose. If squidgy, damp and lousy are really the vibe VisitScotland are going for with their version of Hygge, then their opinion of the Scottish tourism sector is even lower than mine.
Hygge is a useful marketing tool because it convinces some that they buying into a philosophy, a way of life associated with Scandinavian culture (or the consumer’s idea of Scandinavian culture), rather than just a cup of hot chocolate or a jumper lovingly knitted by a machine in China. This now well-known phrase is untranslatable, we are repeated told. There are plenty of Gaelic words with no direct English equivalent. In fact a book on that precise subject has just been published. Funnily enough Còsagach does not appear in it. http://www.slycooking.com/
There is no reason why VisitScotland could not pay a Gaelic translator for the twenty minutes of work it would have taken to come up with 50 more appropriate terms than Còsagach. VisitScotland receives core funding from the Scottish Government. This is not some scrappy start-up making outlandish claims to grab headlines. According to the Audit Scotland report, in 2015-16 VisitScotland received £44.9 million – 81% of their budget – from the Scottish Government. http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/uploads/docs/report/2016/fa_1516_visitscotland.pdf
In the same year, Bòrd na Gàidhlig received less than an eighth of that amount. http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/uploads/docs/report/2016/fa_1516_bord_gaidhlig.pdf
Any publicly funded body has to treat all national languages of Scotland with the basic respect that a living culture deserves, let alone one which they are paid to present to the world. Linguistic tourism is a growing sector and Gaelic is drawing more visitors to Scotland every year. It is a shame that so many of our guests have a greater respect for one of our native languages, than those paid to promote our country to the world.
While this might seem a minor gripe, such actions have potentially damaging consequences. There are many thousands of Gaels who were, and continued to be, denied an education in their own language. As a result many feel insecure about their Gaelic literacy skills. Trumpeting obscure terms like Còsagach could well compound that insecurity. It’s not difficult to imagine such people thinking: if I’ve never heard of this term then my Gaelic can’t be very good at all. Especially when it is being promoted by what should be a dependable source of expertise on all things Scottish.
The fact that VisitScotland are clearly not worried they might get pulled up on this is the most disappointing. They must think that there was no chance of anyone correcting them. But the Gaels are still here, as inconvenient as that may be for some people. If you are going to riffle through my pockets because you think I’m dead, at least have the sense, if not the courtesy, to check my pulse first.