What is kos?

Move over, hygge – this winter is all about this cosy Norwegian concept

Nowadays, it seems that every country has its own untranslatable world. The most recognisable is Denmark’s hygge, which is loosely defined as a sense of cosiness. Sweden has lagom, meaning ‘not too much, not too little, just the right amount’, a kind of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ idea that eschews excess and promises the perfect balance. In Finland, there’s kalsarikännit, a word meaning you are going to get drunk at home in your underwear with no intention of going out (yes, really). And in Norway, there’s kos.

Not just an island in Greece, kos (pronounced ‘coosh’) in Norwegian means a feeling of warmth, kindness, togetherness and laughter. It defines a nation. It’s particularly important in winter, when snow sits heavy in the skies and the dark nights stretch on; it could just be the secret to surviving this dark and gloomy time of year with a smile on your face.

What does it mean?
Kos is the feeling you get when you spend time with your close friends. It’s a little softer than Danish hygge, being more of a sense of mellowness, warmth and friendliness. It’s the emotions you experience when you dive into things that make you happy – baking bread, reading a good book, lighting a candle, drinking a great cup of coffee... It’s sitting in front of a fireplace as the flames crackle. It’s a sense of stopping to enjoy the moment. And especially for Norwegians, who love being out in the fresh air, it’s packing a thermos flask of hot chocolate, a couple of oranges and a Kvikk Lunsj – the Norwegian version of a Kit Kat – and taking a hike in a nearby forest or up your local mountain.
 
Where does it come from?
The idea is supposed to derive from the long winters in Norway, when people took a moment to appreciate safety and survival in harsh winters and through difficult times. While we might now have significant comforts in comparison to our ancestors, that feeling of security is still something to celebrate – perhaps most especially now as we begin to leave a global pandemic behind us.

 What is it not?
Exclusive or expensive. One of the key features of kos is that it is equally available for everyone – anyone can experience it and nobody is left out. According to linguist Jan Svennevig at the University of Oslo, it is a state of mind and reflects an unpretentious common Norwegian ideal of equality. Rather than being a state of luxury, it’s finding luxury in simplicity – the kind of joy that is available to everyone.
 
How do you use it?
A classic Norwegian phrase is ‘nå koser vi oss’ – meaning ‘now we’re having a good time’ or ‘now we’re having kos’. It’s such a popular phrase that it has its own hashtag – #NKVO  –which you can search on Instagram to find Norwegians showing their own versions of kos.

How Norwegians do it
If you’re in Norway, you could do it in winter by going skiing in the mountains, or in the summer, you could go island-hopping until late in the night in a location where the sun doesn’t set until 11pm. You might buy a cinnamon bun at a bakery and eat it slowly with a great cup of coffee – Norwegians love their caffeine  – or you might retreat to a cabin on the side of a fjord for a weekend and enjoy hiking in the fresh air before cosying up in the evening.

 
How to do it yourself
We might not have an English word for it, but that doesn’t mean you have to fly to Norway to find the feeling. Focus on food and good times – invite some friends over for a casual dinner, buy a waffle iron and make heart-shaped Norwegian waffles for breakfast (there’s a great recipe here), or slip into cosy clothes and relax in front of a fire. Eat chocolate while cosying up under a blanket in your favourite spot at home. Or just light some candles, put on some warm socks and make a great cup of tea. It might not pass the Norwegian test – tea is definitely not a Scandinavian thing – but it could be close to an English equivalent. 

Words by Laura Hall