"Wintercaerig"—desolation as deep as winter—and other untranslatable words for the coldest season
The word winter comes from an Old Germanic word that meant ‘time of water’. The season of snow, ice and lashing rain. And for many of us, as the days grow shorter and colder, and the nights draw in, the sense of foreboding, sorrow and loss is not just metaphoric but quite literal too.
While it can seem paradoxical, the season of cold, ice and snow can also bring comfort in social bonds; in communal festivities, the meals we share, in the gifts we exchange. As Gaston Bachelard aptly put it in The Poetics of Space: “…a reminder of winter strengthens the happiness of inhabiting.“
And another way of finding solace as winter approaches, comes from drawing in the ineffable magic of untranslatable words. And beyond descriptions of the winter blues, these words provide windows into the cultural life of others, with evocations of solidarity and conviviality, ways to remain mindful during the cold, and of course new and vivid ways of perceiving the season itself.
What makes something an untranslatable word is the fact that it is a single lexical item that picks out a culture-specific web of meaning that is conveniently identified by the short-hand label it provides. And knowing the word tells us about the culture, and vice versa. Like the English untranslatable word Dickensian, which evokes urban poverty and inequity, as much as it does carols, wassailing, and picturesque snow on cobbles.
Here are my top five untranslatable words for winter.
1. Wintercaerig—Old English: winter sorrow
Wintercaerig can be translated as “winter care” or “winter worry”. It captured the idea of the feeling of sorrow, desolation or loss that is winter-like in its depth and extent, rather than being causally-related to winter. As Anglo-saxons counted years in winters passed, wintercaerig could also mean “sad with years.”
The word is attested in a late tenth century Old English poem, entitled the The Wanderer, named after the poem’s protagonist. And just as the past is a foreign land, so the tongue of our forebears conjures a foreign social life. But what makes wintercaerig untranslatable is that it speaks to Anglo-Saxon themes of unalterable fate.
In the poem, the wanderer speaks of his sorrow, loneliness, and nostalgia for the halcyon days now firmly in the past. And in so doing, the use of wintercaerig is an emblem for what has been lost, and for the fatalistic recognition of the inevitable mutability and degeneration of earthly glory. Conveniently, as Anglo-Saxons counted years in winters passed, wintercaerig could also mean "sad with years”, a fitting epithet for the poem’s protagonist.
2. Koselig—Norwegian: shared coziness and conviviality
Nordic cultures have considerable first hand experience of dealing with and surviving the cold of winter. Moreover, the health psychologist, Kari Leibowitz, has found, in her research, that a wintertime mindset is linked to a sense of wellbeing and resilience among Norwegians.
And one symptom of this is the Norwegian sense of Koselig, which some have claimed is symptomatic of the Norwegian national character. While koselig is an adjective the noun is kos.
Koselig evokes the intimacy of being surrounded in an atmosphere of convivial friendship indoors. And in this, it is related to the Danish word hygge, and the Swedish word mysig.
But while the concept relates to the mystical intimacy of shared time inside, it is not exclusively reserved for use during the winter months. But inevitably, in such contexts, it evokes the additional cosyness of warmth and roaring fires.
In other contexts, it can be used to refer to weekend socializing, with friends in the pub. And as such, it relates to the German word Gemütlichkeit—being warm, comfortable and in good, often rousing company in a beer hall.
But what makes koselig special, is that it also evokes a sense of resilience that comes from agreeable company indoors. And hence, if we channel our inner koselig, we can evoke the indefatigable Norwegian spirit that fosters wellbeing from surviving an arduous winter.
3. Gluggaveður—Icelandic: Window weather
This word describes the concept of weather that’s beautiful to look at, but unpleasant to be out in. Hence, it’s weather best admired from indoors. Imagine a wintry sunset on distant snowy mountains over trees, a stunning spectacle, but best admired through the window.
4. Fuyugare (冬枯れ)—Japanese: Winter withering
Fuyugare is a compound of the noun fuyu (冬), meaning "winter", and the verb kareru (枯れる), "to wither". Unlike the other words in this list, this provides a unique way of describing the appearance of the outdoors during winter. From the skeletal and bare trees to frozen fields, fuyugare or "winter withering" says it all.
5. Niksen—Dutch: the art of doing nothing
Niksen is not specifically related to winter, it’s a word that the Dutch say on a daily basis. But it’s especially apt during cold days, and long nights, when staying inside, whiling away time absently, is better than being out with purpose.
Niksen evokes the idea of giving in to doing nothing much, and so relinquishing the struggle with time. In short, it’s an acceptance of aimlessly passing the time without the feeling of guilt at wasting time. And that should give us some comfort as we hunker in our winter bunkers.