Yukonomist: Skookum versus Hygge

Back before Christmas, I wrote a column whinging that our wily winter-tourism competitors in Denmark had managed to turn the obscure Danish word “hygge” into a global brand-building phenomenon that made winter cool.

Hygge is pronounced “hew-guh,” and means “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”

It has hit books, TV shows, tourism experiences and more around the world. I even ran into it in a trendy shop in Sonoma outside San Francisco. Denmark has even applied to the United Nations to get the concept declared an piece of humanity’s “intangible cultural heritage.”

In a move that must have our crafty Danish friends sniggering over their caraway-flavoured akvavit, a certain Canadian magazine even published a piece entitled “What Denmark can teach us about surviving winter.”

The RCMP should go to the magazine’s office in Toronto, arrest the writer on charges of cultural treason, and sentence them to a spend an afternoon in a Yukon cabin snuggling with friends and hot chocolate by the woodstove after a day skiing through the spruces.

This episode underlines how successful this Danish phenomenon has been. They’ve come a long way from their old brand, which involved images of giant hairy men slicing toddlers in half with battle-axes with monasteries burning in the background.

I challenged the Yukon News readership to come up with a Yukon word that could compete with hygge.

I then found out that it’s not just the Danes. All of Scandinavia has been working on words to express something special about their culture.

The Nordic Museum in Seattle, which I highly recommend, has a whole section on cool Nordic words (as well as a gift shop which has everything from those little Scandinavian licorice candies to dill-flavoured mackerel paste in a handy toothpaste tube to put on toast).

The Norwegians have “koselig,” which is an exotic cousin of “cosy.” It means “an atmosphere of warmth, intimacy and happiness,” which can be experienced in “front of a glowing fire, during an informal dinner with friends, or even through impromptu musical entertainment.”

Koselig complements “friluftsliv,” which means “open air life.” The best kind of open air life involves, of course, skis.

Icelanders have “huggulegheit,” which is the feeling of “warmth and coziness that comes from being wrapped in a soft blanket” or from wearing a puffy Icelandic wool sweater.

In Sweden, they have the word “lagom.” This is roughly translated as “enough is as good as a feast.” At the cabin, you don’t need seven courses with filet mignon and Oregon pinot to be just right.

The Swedes also have “fika,” which is a much cooler kind of coffee break than the one you take. It involves Swedish pastries and, according to the Nordic museum, is an “important source of inspiration and creativity.”

The Finns, on the other hand, have “sisu.” Unlike the words related to cozy snuggling with friends, sisu evokes hardiness, determination, resilience and bravery. It is associated with everything from toughing it out on a long ski expedition to celebrating the Finnish infantry who fought the Red Army to a standstill in the Karelian forests while outnumbered ten-to-one during the 1940 Winter War.

Nor is it just the big Nordic countries that are in on the game. The Sami have “verdde,’ which is the tradition of hospitality, barter and cooperative exchange rooted in the custom of friend-guest relations. If you’ve ever given away your spare snowmobile drive belt to someone you met in the bush, and received fresh-baked muffins in return, you already know about verdde.

Which brings us to my challenge to you. What Yukon word can rival hygge in saying something profound about how we live here.

I must first thank everyone who submitted an entry. There were too many interesting and creative suggestions to print!

So I’ll just share the winner.

The title goes to Tim Green. His entry was: “Generally speaking, life in Yukon is pretty skookum. That’s probably due to the skookumisms of the people, the skookumality of the geography, and the skookumness of the weather. It may also be due to the close skookumships we spontaneously form with other Yukoners.”

He went on to say that even skookumless tourists are overwhelmed by the skookumful hospitality they encounter everywhere in the Yukon.

One thing skookum has going for it is that it has deep roots in many Yukon communities. Skookum Jim was one of the co-discoverers of the gold that kicked off the Klondike Gold Rush and his legacy as a First Nations leader lives on at the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre. The word was also deeply embedded in Pacific Northwest English. The Oxford Dictionary says it came from Chinook jargon, and entered the English language in the mid 1800s meaning “strong, brave or impressive.”

Life in the Yukon requires a bit more gumption than living in Copenhagen, so I also like skookum’s sense of toughness and perseverence above all the cozy-related terms from our circumpolar friends.

We’ll be awarding Tim a small prize, and it won’t be caraway-flavoured akvavit.

Tim wrapped up his entry with what sounds like a good idea to me in light of Denmark’s success with hygge: “Maybe we should market our omniskookumosity more effectively.”

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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