Now that we’ve officially moved from Summer into Autumn (in the Northern Hemisphere), our minds are beginning to turn towards home. No longer yearning for beach fun and tropical sun, this time of year finds us more typically desiring a hot beverage, a soft blanket, and a comfortable wingback chair. However you may define Autumnal relaxation, the chances are that it can be summed up in today’s word: cosy or cozy, depending on which side of the Atlantic you find yourself. Though we all know how the word “feels” to us individually, let’s snuggle in, grab a coffee, and have a look at what makes cosy so desirable.
Originating in the Scottish dialect as colsie, our word was initially synonymous with the word snug, essentially meaning ‘comfortable, warm, or sheltered’; however, beyond this, the origin becomes rather confusing. While the origin is assuredly Northern European, it could’ve originated in a couple plausible ways, such as via Scandinavian languages, considering the Norwegian phrase kose seg, meaning ‘be cozy’, or in Gaelic, as a relative to còsagach, meaning ‘sheltered, snug, warm’, or as a relative of the words cosh and cois, meaning ‘small cottage’ and ‘little hole or cavern’, respectively. Additionally, to address the difference in spelling between British and American English, though the term isn’t French, this is a holdover application from French influence – yes, it’s the Normans again – in British English that American English doesn’t adopt (American English (along with OED) uses the older Greek application of the z).
The first mention of our term in English comes from the sermons of Scottish Covenanter, William Guthrie. Delivered around 1665, Guthrie’s A Sermon Concerning Regeneration, published in 1709 and using our term as an adjective in terms of a person meaning “comfortable from being warm, sheltered, and snug,” speaks of: “When Israel was Cozy at Home.”
Beyond just applying to a person, the next century witnessed the term beginning to be applied specifically to places. Initiated by none other than the National Bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, in his 1786 work entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (aka the Kilmarnock volume), he writes: “Then canie, in some cozy place, They close the day.”
Transitioning from an adjective to a noun, the middle and late 19th century saw our word being applied to tea as well as a potentially romantic place to sit. Usage as a quilted covering to retain the heat of a teapot was first recorded in 1863: John Tyndall in Heat Considered as a Mode of Motion notes that: “It is not unusual to preserve the heat of teapots by a woollen covering, but the ‘cosy’ must fit loosely.” On the other hand, if you’re feeling amorous, John Richard Green, writing in 1876’s Stray Studies from England and Italy, discusses the canopied seat for 2 in the corner of a room, describing how: “The salon itself..is a pleasant room, gaily painted, with cosies all round it and a huge mass of gorgeous flowers in the centre.”
At the turn of the 20th century, as with many other words, our word also began to attain a figurative sense, both positive and negative. For example, marketing an upholstered seat in 1894, The Country Gentleman’s Catalogue states: “Our patent cosy corners. Elegant and comfortable additions to any room.” Using the term as friendly or warm-spirited, English essayist and parodist Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm, recalls in 1927 how: “We liked her very much. She isn’t exactly cosy, but she’s very spirited.” in the posthumously published Letters to Reggie Turner (1964). Conversely, writing in the midst of cultural change in 1960, Charles Percy Snow, in The Affair, utilizes the term in a pointed, mocking fashion to suggest a type of smug arrogance, writing: “It was mildly ironic..to find her set on seeing him a cosy, bourgeois success.”
So, apparently, you can have your warm beverage, plush throw, and comfy chair, just try not to be too smug about it.