Some words can’t be salvaged from comedy. They are serviceable but tainted with silliness. Such a word is “cosy,” about which the Oxford English Dictionary tells us little: “Orig. Sc. (and perh. north. Eng.): derivation unknown.” The first citation of its use as an adjective dates to 1709, when it was used exclusively “Of persons: Comfortable from being warm and sheltered; snug.” In 1837, Dickens used it in The Pickwick Papers: “After Mr. Bob Sawyer had informed him that he meant to be very cosey.”
“Of a place: a. Sheltered and thus warm; this passes into the sense of b. Sheltering, keeping warm, in which one is warm and comfortable. Often both notions are involved,” is first reported in 1785, used in a letter by Robert Burns.
The first negative – and, thus, comic -- use of “cosy” wasn’t reported until 1927, in Max Beerbohm, and defined like this: “Warmly intimate or friendly; sentimental; freq. in pejorative sense: complacent, smug, unadventurous, parochial.” Then comes “cosy corner,” “cosy stove,” “cosy seat,” “cosy carriage” (“a small kind of omnibus”) and, best of all, “A quilted covering placed over a tea-pot to retain the heat; more fully, tea-cosy. A similar covering to keep an egg warm, an egg-cosy.”
To an American ear, such words are amusing and quintessentially English. I can’t imagine many an American using a tea cosy without campy intent. Doing a Google search for “cosy,” the first hit is the Church of Scotland Youth (nice touch, with the word’s apparent Scotch origin). Also, the Institute for Nuclear Physics in Germany has a site dedicated to COSY (“the cooler synchrotron and storage ring for protons in the momentum range between 600 and 3700 MeV/c”). In medical imaging it stands for “correlation spectroscopy.” There was also the late jazz drummer homophonically named Cozy Cole.
I’ve prolonged this digression because I came upon a lovely, non-comedic use of “cosy” in a remembrance of W.H. Auden written by Oliver Sacks and published in 1975 in W.H. Auden: A Tribute, edited by Stephen Spender. In April 1972, Sacks and a friend helped Auden pack his books and other belongings as the poet prepared to move his winter home from New York City to Oxford, England. He had lived in the U.S. since 1939. At the airport, a stranger recognized Auden (could any face be more inimitable?) and effusively thanked and blessed him for his work and his prolonged American residency.
“As the decorous stranger discretely retired, I asked Wystan how he experienced the world, whether he thought of it as being a very small or a very large place. `Neither,’ he replied. `Neither large nor small. Cosy, cosy…(and, in an undertone)…like home.’
They embraced, Auden kissed the cheeks of both men (“the kiss of a godfather embracing his godsons: a kiss of benediction and farewell”) and boarded the plane. Sacks, a scientist attuned to the worth and weight of words, continues:
“Cosy, cosy – it was one of his favourite words, one of the words he most used when chatting. (He was dissatisfied by its coverage in the great OED, and thought of re-doing this, making an anthology of the cosy, giving the word its full and proper world-embracing power.) Whenever he said `cosy’ in his peculiar voice, it seemed to acquire a special richness of evocation and meaning. Once we saw a bird fly to it nest atop a sooty lamp-post in St Mark’s Place: `Look!,’ exclaimed Wystan. `It’s gone home to its nest. Think how cosy it must be in its nest!” For a moment I felt (I fancied I felt) exactly what the bird felt – cosy, protected, at home, in its nest. And Wystan’s apartment in the East Village, though squalid and cluttered and dilapidated and dirty, this too was cosy, wonderfully so: it had the cosiness of a human nest.”
Sacks goes on to describe his first meeting with Auden, in 1969, when the poet’s teapot was in a tea-cosy and his egg in an egg-cosy. Sacks was driving a BMW with a jacket around the fuel tank, when Auden admired as an automobile-cosy.
“That afternoon,” Sacks writes, “sensitized me to the concept of cosiness, and amongst other things, drew my attention to something which runs through all his poems, but which I had never properly seen before then; his delight in the cosiness of language itself, the fitting-together of words and ideas, the way in which phrase is fitted into phrase into phrase into phrase, the way in which every word is embodied, encysted, nested cosily into its right and proper place, where it belongs, at home, in the body of the poem.”
Sacks inspires me to reevaluate “cosy,” to reclaim it from mere campiness. So often, English words resonate with contradictory meanings. That’s part of the glory of our inheritance. A fussy concern with keeping the tea sufficiently hot for one’s guests may be laughable but remains at the same time thoughtful and respectful. As Sacks says, “Words became palpable, solid, alive, when Wystan used them, both things in themselves and expressions of himself…”
Sacks never saw Auden again, for the poet died 17 months later, in Vienna. Find a copy of W.H. Auden: A Tribute and read all of Sacks’ “Dear Mr. A….,” a touching evocation of cosiness in the best sense.