It hasn’t happened to me very often during the last eighty years or so, but the last few weeks I have been completely at a loss for an English word. I’m fairly sure that it must exist, and I know that I shall need it, but where is it? I have done everything that might help in situations like this: I have scratched my head, I have chewed my pencil, I have consulted Roget’s Thesaurus as well as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and I have asked my wife Elisabet (who generally knows these things). All to no avail and Elisabet is now chewing her pencil as well. So is our guest, fellow expat Shirley, who has been on the wrong side of the North Sea for nearly as long as I have, and she too has no answer. But let me explain.
Imagine that the two of you have just spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening with friends at their home. Good food, lively conversation, a blazing fire in the hearth; plenty to laugh about, and a few things to ponder on; old memories recalled and new ideas bandied around. The sort of evening that could well go on for ever, but now it’s getting on for midnight; reluctantly, you move towards the coat rack in the hall, murmuring that We Must Do This Again, and meaning it. Then you turn to thank your hosts. Easy enough. But how do you characterise for them in a single word the hours that you have just passed together? “It’s been so……what?”
I have wandered around Northern Europe enough to experience these delightful social situations in a variety of places, and linguistically they have never had me tongue-tied. In Holland, around the Zuyder Zee, the lights in all the windows are bright of a winter evening as families and friends gather together to relax around the stove with a glass of something. And they have a word for it – they do it because it’s so gezellig. Over the border to the East, the Westphalians and the Bavarians may do it a little differently from one another, but they know just how to describe it: it’s gemütlich. (They may even come up with sehr gemütlich, but somehow for me that conjures up visions of beer cellars and large men jumping and down in lederhosen.) Travel northwards, and of an evening you’ll soon find Norwegian doors opening up on every side to pull you in from the snow and make you welcome with a dish of lutefisk (something exquisite made from cod) steaming on the table and perhaps the lively tones of the Hardanger fiddle in the air to set your feet a-tapping. And the Norwegians too have just the right word for the atmosphere – it’s so hyggelig.
So, with a trip to Albion pending, and still not knowing how real Englishmen, unpolluted by foreign parts, nowadays express themselves on these occasions, I have a problem. Surely they haven’t forgotten how to be gezellig, or what to call it? I plod back to my dictionaries and the trusty Thesaurus to rehearse my lines. “Thank you so much ”I already hear myself murmuring to my hosts at the end of an evening “It’s been really…..” Really what?
Enjoyable? No, that’s too coldly clinical, as if I don’t quite mean it..
Fun? Surely not, that sounds as if we’ve been tickling each other and giggling all the evening.
Pleasant? Congenial? Much too nineteenth century. Starchy, even.
Jolly? Definitely not – I think of the overweight fisherman on the old posters, bouncing down Skegness beach with that irritating grin on his face because the place is so bracing.
Cool? Maybe, if someone will tell me what it means.
Cosy? Grandmotherly, all chintz and oil-lamps and elderberry wine.
Reluctantly, I set Roget and Brewer aside.
Then a thought strikes me. What, I ask myself, do they say on such occasion on The Archers? Or on Coronation Street, for that matter?
And then I remember. They say it’s been nice. A nice party, a nice evening, a nice dinner. Amorphous, I say to myself, but that’s what they say, and if need be very nice or even very nice indeed, with the emphasis in the voice. The American soaps are no better. Great, they exclaim, Just great. Or swell. Or even Awesome.
So there I am. If nobody comes to save me before I get to London. I shall have to go on practising all the variants I can manage on nice. Really nice. Awfully nice. Sòòòò nice….. And I must get the voice right, mustn’t I?.
Somebody help me…….please.
Illustration: Jolly Fisherman, from GNR Railway poster (1908) by John Hassall
Whilst on the subject, see: Lost for words 18th July 2010