About “convivial” and “gezellig”

Gezellig – quintessentially Dutch

If you ask a Dutch person which word in their language is unique and cannot be translated, they will invariably tell you about “gezellig”.

Similar to the Danish hyggelig (the adjective to go with the currently trendy verb/noun hygge), gezellig refers to the happy and cosy feeling of togetherness that you get when you are with other people. It can also refer to the ambiance of a place where that kind of cosy togetherness is likely to happen; often with food and drink. Or to the personality of a person who is friendly and sociable.

There are other Dutch words that I find more untranslatable myself, but gezellig is the word that has entered the Dutch collective conscience as the untranslatable Dutch word, probably because it’s meaning has cultural significance; the Dutch are proud of the word gezellig because they see themselves as gezellig. If you google it you’ll get a million different articles singing its praises and doing a better job at explaining what it means than I did above.

But what about convivial?

Untranslatable you say? What about convivial? Convivial is defined as “(of an atmosphere or event) friendly, lively, and enjoyable;”a convivial cocktail party”, or (of a person) cheerful and friendly; jovial.

…. which may not be the exact same as “gezellig” but it comes darned close.

One of the problems with convivial is that in many cases it cannot be placed in a sentence in the way gezellig can. I might invite someone to join me by saying “kom er gezellig bijzitten!” but in English I would never say “come join me convivially!” However, “een gezellige sfeer” can be translated as “a convivial atmosphere” and nobody would complain that it sounds funny.

But the second problem with convivial is, I think, its prevalence. Gezellig is used A LOT in Dutch. Conversely, convivial is not particularly popular. It’s a bit old-fashioned, a bit Jane Austen, and people don’t use it much. In fact, I had a suspicion that quite a lot of people don’t even know what it means. As a translator, that’s important information; you shouldn’t translate a term that every reader will instantly understand with a word that people need to look up.

How well-known is the word convivial?

So I decided to put a short questionnaire up on Reddit, expecting to get a few dozen responses so I could verify my hunch. Boy was I surprised when a day later almost 2000 people had filled in their answers! For one thing, I wish I had made a better questionnaire; for example, I had thought to ask people where they were from (because it would be interesting to know if the answers were different for Americans, Brits, non-native speakers etc..) but it turned out I had made a mistake when programming that question and none of my respondents got to see it 🙁

But I still got to verify my hunch, though.

First I asked “Without looking it up, do you know what the word “convivial” means?”

Without looking it up, do you know what the word “convivial” means?

Out of 1990 respondents, 55% answered “no idea”, 35% answered “I can’t give a definition on the spot but I have an idea of what it means and could probably pick the right definition from a list” and 10% answered “I know exactly what it means”

(Interestingly, of the 10% who chose “I know exactly what it means”, 8% chose the wrong definition…)

Unsurprisingly, the older people got, the more they knew what it meant. But even of the 31 to 60-year-olds, only 40% felt they knew exactly what the word meant.

Pick the correct definition of convivial

On the next page of the questionnaire, I asked respondents to pick out the definition of “convivial” from a list. 52% chose the correct definition (“friendly, lively, and enjoyable”).

I made up three other definitions for people to choose from, which I based on five minutes of intuitive nonsense etymology.

36% chose “(concerning the act of) living together”, (I thought I could catch people out with “viv” from the French “vivre” and “con” from “confer” which has togetherness in it – and I was right), 12% chose “filled with remorse, sorry” (the correct word would be the similar contrite) and half a percent chose “a marine animal” (I thought perhaps a watery marsupial… but clearly only very few people were caught out by that one, probably also because “convivial” has such an adjectivy feel to it.)

Who filled in the survey?

Some notes on the type of people who filled in the survey:

They skewed VERY young (it’s reddit, after all). Note in the below graph that my age ranges weren’t equal; I chose to do it that way firstly because I knew lots of people would be young, and secondly because people learn a lot of new vocabulary in their college years, but later not so much.

Most were native speakers:

Those darned French speakers…

As mentioned, I goofed up and did not manage to ask people about their language background. Something I may have missed because of this is speakers of Romance languages, like Italian, Portuguese and French; these languages have a word that is very similar to “convivial” and which means the same, so they are easily going to be able to define it.

In this case, however, I don’t think it matters for my point. There won’t have been very many French speakers in the sample, and even if there were, it kind of emphasises my point: even with a few French speakers in the mix, still only 10% of people were certain they knew what the word meant!

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think I can safely say that my hunch was correct. “Convivial” is too unknown of a word to safely use as a translation for “gezellig”, unless you are dealing with a well-read readership or the meaning is clear from the context.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

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