In your time spent in the Netherlands, you might have heard the word gezellig being used as the Dutchies are very proud of it. It’s also a word that is not that gezellig to pronounce. It also happens to be untranslatable directly in 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 specific Dutch word.

Origin of the word gezellig

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 a 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, and things are not equally gezellig for everyone.

Being on a terrace, drinking beer and listening to music is the epitome of gezellig. Image: mirceaianc/Pixabay

It gets even more complicated because gezellig is used to describe different things, from events to places and to people. Does this remind you of another Dutch word used pretty much everywhere? Ah yes, lekker man! I think that lekker and gezellig are comparable in the way they are used to describe pretty much every feel-good cool thing in the Netherlands.

Is everything that is lekker also gezellig? We do not know, and scientists have been trying to find out for years the answer to this very important cultural question (you can also let us know what you think in the comments.)

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We can perhaps agree that some things are completely gezellig, no matter your preferences. Let’s think of a few different scenarios that are 100% gezellig.

  • 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 as you are 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 many different ways, but it can be summed up as including the following elements: a state of cosiness, that is shared with other people in a spirit of togetherness, and belonging to something. Actions can be gezellig too, it all depends on the context and the way the word is used.

Chilling with your friends in a tent under the night sky is surely gezellig. Image: chulmin1700/Pixabay

Gezellig but not really: using it sarcastically

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.

What is gezellig with Dutchies is not necessarily the same for internationals

The Dutch have many things that they see as gezellig, but that might not apply for internationals as well. Take for example the borrelen. Dutchies gather around for drinks and bitterballen, and they do their fair share of networking, conversation and the like. An international, however, might not feel welcome at these kinds of events, as the Dutchies might not speak English or feel the need to include the internationals in the conversation.

A great example of this in action is something that happened back at my university. There used to be a board that organized borrels on the different floors of our campus. The people there were mostly white Dutchies wearing suits, and surprise, not a lot of internationals showed up and felt welcome. It was certainly gezellig for them, but it was not long until their boards cancelled activities altogether, due to lack of international participants.

The reverse of the coin: ongezellig

Now that we have an understanding somewhat of gezellig, it’s time to learn about the evil twin of the word.

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. Basically, a corporate office meeting, where nobody knows what they’re talking and office politics takes the forefront, can be described as ongezellig.

Other things that are ongezellig include:

  • having to pay high taxes when you already spent your money
  • having to meet that one acquaintance of yours that 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, it is probably an indication to get the hell out of there.

This cat perfectly exemplifies how you look in an ongezellig setting. Image: JamieDepledge/Pixabay

Similar words like gezellig that you can find in other languages

Like patat met mayo, not everything that is 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 thrown into 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’. Not fully gezellig, but getting there.

The Germans also have a word that kind of is 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, which is funny, considering their climates are not that gezellig.

What are your most gezellig experiences in the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments.

Feature Image: guylucis/Pixabay

5 COMMENTS

  1. To add on the lekker & gezellig situation, one can use them in conjunction as in “het was lekker gezellig”
    (Pretty gezellig), wanna go over that then use “super gezellig”

    But be carefull “lekker gezellig” with a different tonality turns into the sarcastic variant meaning quite the opposite.

    Whether anything lekker is also gezellig I’d go with no based on the following;

    Anyone who is lekker is not necessarily gezellig and vice versa, the category lacking both we’ll leave
    undiscussed and then there’s the category of lekker & gezellig. That’s where you wanna put in your efforts! 😉

  2. There’s a noteworthy difference between the usage of “gezellig” and “lekker” to describe another person, if I’m not mistaken. If you talk about, let’s say Lotte, and claim that she is “gezellig”.. well .. then she’s a nice person with fine social skills. If you deem her to be “lekker”, on the other hand, you proclaim your (sexual) attraction to her.

  3. That was going to be my comment, Mykel. “Hè, lekker gezellig.” As you are saying it, you can shrug your shoulders as though you are giving yourself a hug. Lekker was the first word my American grandchildren children learned and then I taught them how to wave their hand along their face when it was “Zooo Lekker, Oma.”

  4. I appreciate the post. I am a native Dutch speaker having left the fatherland. Yet some of the observations are not entirely accurate. Gezellig definitely has a companionship element to it. So the observation referring to eating a cheese sandwich on your own is not gezellig. Having a pet greet you (depending on the person perhaps) is not necessarily gezellig. Gezellig is indeed impossible to translate directly into 1 word into another language, true. But it is best described as an adjective that always has a positive meaning referring to being in company that you enjoy, in which several elements of that moment together work as being referred to in that way. So christmas evening with family and friends, can have gezellige atmosphere, gezellig food, gezellige Christmas lights. Yet none of these things can be gezellig when alone. This does not mean that being alone cannot be enjoyed. The adjective will simply not work or be used when alone. Then you can use it sarcastically when you do not enjoy the company, or negative as in ongezellig (the same as described but in reverse).
    Lekker is equally comprehensive. Simply put it means tasty. It can refer to food/drink, feelings (warmth, massage, cool breeze, car ride, bike ride), weather specifically (lekker weertje), and often to people of the opposite sex (not in a polite way, so NSFW, but not necessarily completely offensive either, so a bit rude, but bot to the point where the subject in question should feel embarrassed, it is actually a bit tongue-in-cheek and playful), also it can refer to oneself when you feel especially physically well (after a shower or workout or dinner, you can feel lekker) and it is used more abstractly in slang (lekker man, lekker pik, lekker dan, lekker!, which are sometimes more abstract phrases). Lekker man (tasty! dude!) could be a sigh of approval when someone tells you something nice they are about to do, like a holiday. Lekker pik, is typically said among millennials in the Amsterdam/Rotterdam regions, that is more a greeting of sorts as well as approval (and means tasty dick). Lekker dan, would be used sarcastically as disapproval.
    These 2 words are most likely among the 25 most common words in Dutch and are very layered and untranslatable. Although Dutch would not likely win a prize any time soon for sounding all too great, it is a deeply expressive language, that lends itself better for idiom than English and Italian (both of which I speak perfectly as well) for instance.

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