Throughout your time in the Netherlands, you probably have heard the word gezellig being used as Dutchies are very loud and proud of this concept — let’s explore the meaning behind it together.
This word also happens to be not so gezellig to pronounce, nor can it be directly translated into other languages — yet it is a concept that all of us can understand and appreciate.
Gezellig can best be described as a state of cosiness and togetherness, a shared sense of joy of spending time together with friends, drinking at a terrace by the canal after work. The word can be used in a lot of contexts, so read below for our guide on this magical and very specific Dutch word.
The origin of the word comes as a derivation from the word gezel, which means ‘friend’ or ‘companion’.
Back in the old days, gezel was also used to designate a ‘journeyman’, which was used in the Dutch guild system as a group that forms around master craftsmen, which is where the word also got its connotation of belonging.
What makes something gezellig?
A search on how the word is used reveals that, like many similar abstract concepts, gezellig is really in the eye of the beholder. 💎 Therefore, what qualifies as gezellig depends from person to person as things are not equally gezellig for everyone.
It gets even more complicated because gezellig is used to describe different things: events, actions, places, and people. Does this remind you of another Dutch word used pretty much everywhere? Ah yes, lekker man! Lekker and gezellig are comparable in the way since they’re both used to describe almost every feel-good cool thing in the Netherlands.
But is everything that is lekker also gezellig? 🤔 We do not know, and scientists have been trying to figure out the answer to this very important cultural question for years — but feel free to weigh in on the matter in the comments. ⌨
What we can perhaps agree on is that some things are completely gezellig, no matter your preferences, such as the following 100% gezellig scenarios:
- Fairy lights in a room while drinking wine with your friends and listening to music on a vinyl player. (definitely gezellig 🍷)
- Arriving home after a long day at work and getting greeted by your cat. (super gezellig 🐈)
- Eating a brood met kaas on a rainy day. (surely gezellig, but the sandwich is pretty lekker too 🥪)
- Feeling the warmth of the sun after the abyss of Dutch winter (50% gezellig, 50% the sun is always lekker 🌞)
- Discovering you have been exempt from paying taxes in the Netherlands forever through the grace of the King himself (wholesome gezellig and a lekker story to tell to your friends)
As you can see, gezellig can be used in different ways as long as it includes the following elements: a state of cosiness, that is shared with other people in a spirit of togetherness and belonging to something. 📃
Gezellig to Dutchies vs. internationals
The Dutch have many things they see as gezellig, but that might not apply to internationals. Take for example the borrelen: where Dutchies gather around for drinks and bitterballen, and they do their fair share of networking, conversation, and the like.
An international, however, may not feel welcome at these kinds of events as the Dutchies might not speak English or include the internationals in the conversation.
Back at my university, there used to be a board that organized borrels on different locations of our campus. Attendees were mostly Dutchies in suits, and surprisingly not a lot of internationals showed up and felt welcome. It was certainly gezellig for them, but it eventually got cancelled by their boards due to a lack of international participants. 🤷♀️
Similar to gezellig in other languages
Like patat met mayo, not everything Dutch is uniquely Dutch. The closest English equivalent to gezellig might be cosy, or togetherness, yet it is not a direct translation as gezellig is really an assortment of different concepts in one. 🍱
There is a word in Danish and Norwegian that comes closer to the original meaning of gezellig, namely hygge. It’s related to the Dutch word heugen, which means “to remember” and the word verheugen, which means “to look forward to”.
The Germans also have a word that is kind of similar, gemütlichkeit. It denotes a state of friendliness and warmth, belonging and peace of mind. But to be precise, the Dutch have their own version of this gemoedelijkheid.
In general, it seems that Germanic and Nordic countries have words that partially resemble the meaning of gezellig — if only their climates were gezellig. 🥶
Gezellig but not really: sarcastic use
Gezellig can also be used ironically or sarcastically, such as when you say something like ‘having my train delayed all the time to work is gezellig’, or saying ‘gezellig hoor’ when you need to hear your conservative aunts defending Zwarte Piet.
Ongezellig: the flipside
Now that we have an understanding of gezellig, it’s time to learn about its evil twin: enter ongezellig. 😈
If gezellig is warmth and cosiness, then ongezellig is the coldest, most desolate place, where everything and everyone is uninviting, rude, and definitely not lekker.
It’s like a corporate office meeting where nobody knows what they’re talking about and office politics takes the forefront — that can be described as ongezellig.
Other ongezellig things include:
- Having to pay high taxes when you already spent your money.
- Having to meet that one acquaintance of yours who always talks about themselves and never asks you anything.
- Going to a busy cafe to discover there are no more charging plugs for your laptop.
- Having your bike pushed in a canal by the wind.
- Dropping your boterham face down.
As such, if you are ever anywhere and a Dutchie uses the word ongezellig to describe the situation, that it is probably a sign to run for your life. 🏃♂️
What are your most gezellig experiences in the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments below!
This article was originally published in February 2020, and was fully updated in October 2021 for your reading pleasure.
Feature Image: guylucis/Pixabay