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The Coziness of Gemutlichkeit

ENGLISH words are making more than just guest appearances in German newspapers. You come across the like of ``Know-how,'' ``Flop,'' ``joggen'' (German for to jog), ``Showdown,'' ``Recycling,'' and ``Timing,'' to name a few.

In American papers, you may stumble on ``Angst,'' ``ersatz,'' ``gestalt,'' ``leitmotif,'' and ``zeitgeist'' - that's about it for Germanisms.

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But wait, there's also gemutlichkeit. People always ask Germans: What exactly is it? That's like asking an American: What does ``cover'' mean, as in ``cover all the bases''? Please answer in four words. It can't be done without explaining something about baseball. By the same token, you can't define gemutlichkeit without telling something about German social life.

I realized these ``cultural connotations'' of the word, as it were, when I was invited to the home of American friends back in Germany. There were four of us in their living room, and we were sitting on chairs that by German standards were too far apart for friendly conversation. Sentences seemed to waft from one person in this part of the room across a great divide to the other people in the down-yonder parts of the room. To those used to talking to people at arm's length, this was long-distance communication.

I realized then that gemutlichkeit doesn't thrive in open spaces. It requires people to be seated around a table, preferably with elbow contact. This closeness makes for a cozier atmosphere in which conversation bounces back and forth more easily and at lower decibels. Close quarters also seem to foster quick repartee.

When the company is congenial and the exchanges delight the mind as well as the heart, when the ``kaffee und kuchen'' (coffee and cake) is pleasing to the palate, then all you need to top it off is a cold wind pelting the windows with sleet, while inside a fire crackles in the stove.

All this combined makes for a feeling of coziness, snugness, comfortableness, informality, sociableness, and friendliness, the very words the dictionaries use to give us the sense of gemutlichkeit.

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