If You’re Not Welsh, You Might Not Know the Word ‘Cwtsh’
Growing up, the word cwtsh was all around me. It was something I did everyday with my Mam, my grandparents, even with the occasional cousin (when we weren’t squabbling). It was probably one of my first words.
It means hug, but anyone who uses it will probably agree that it somehow means more than that. There’s love and kindness involved — I wouldn’t use cwtsh for what I might offer a colleague on their birthday, or the awkward exchange when I’m introduced to a friend of a friend at a bar. You have to squeeze some real affection into it.
It has other uses too, usually relating to a small, enclosed space like a cupboard under the stairs, or a ‘coal cwtsh’ used for storing coal outside, though I haven’t used it that way since my grandparents had gas central heating installed in the 90s. But primarily it’s used for wrapping your arms around someone and showing them how you feel.
As a child, I didn’t know it was a uniquely Welsh word. My part of Wales is primarily English speaking, and that was even more the case when I was young. We were aware and proud of the Welsh language — it was all around us, in place names and landmarks — but few people in my village spoke it. I didn’t always know, however, that even in English we had a collection of words that were exclusive to Wales (and sometimes even my little corner of it).
But it didn’t take long to realise that the word cwtsh was one of the few that only we use, and it’s is very much associated with the country.
If you’ve ever been to a Welsh gift shop, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s on the mugs. It’s on the T-shirts. It’s on the fridge magnets and keyrings and stencilled into cakes and most of all it’s on the pillows. My God, pillows love a good cwtsh.
I grew up knowing the word had a special, personal meaning. In a gift shop or on a pillow it loses all meaning completely. Live, Laugh, Love, it screams.
For this reason, there are a lot of people in Wales who can’t stand the word. It’s everywhere, debasing all other forms of Welsh culture. It must be even more infuriating for those who don’t even use it.
But I don’t spend a lot of time in gift shops. So, personally, I love the word. Hearing it is a little like the audible version of seeing the Severn Bridge for people who live in the south of Wales, or seeing the Welsh language appearing on road signs — you know you’re home.
But I’ve got one big problem: I can’t spell it.
What Language Is It Anyway?
I’ve spelled it cwtsh here because that’s the way I‘ve come to believe it should be spelled, but if you’re lucky/unlucky enough to have one of those pillows it’s probably spelled cwtch. That’s how I’ve spelled it for most of my life, but it can also be found in the form of cwts.
One of the reasons I can’t spell it is I’m not even sure what language it actually is. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up in an English-speaking part of Wales, but my relationship with the Welsh language has always been strong. I’ve written about it in more detail here:
The Challenges of Learning a Language
How I finally got over the obstacles to learning my own tongue
So I’m immersed in Welsh language culture enough to know that it’s commonly used by first-language Welsh speakers too, when speaking Welsh. And then there’s the ubiquitous ‘w’.
‘W’ is a vowel in Welsh (as is ‘y’, making the frequent jibes that Welsh has no vowels all the more ridiculous) and it’s often explained as sounding like a double ‘o’ in English. But not just any double ‘o’. It has to be the one from book or look, not food or spoon and certainly never coordinate.
Welsh is a phonetic language, meaning it’s far easier to read, so the ‘w’ gives us some clarity. But — and there’s always a but — the ‘ch’ makes a very different sound. In Welsh, the letters ‘ch’ represent one letter that produces a harsh sound not present in English, and is never the same as the ‘ch’ in china. Except, in cwtch, it is. So maybe it isn’t a Welsh word after all?
That’s why I’ve settled on the spelling cwtsh. When you try to pronounce both cwtch and cwtsh, I don’t really feel there’s that much of a difference — the ‘t’ before the ‘sh’ kind of makes it a ‘ch’ (arguably there’s no need for the ‘t’ in cwtch and you could spell it cwch, but that’s ‘boat’ in Welsh and pronounced very differently, so to avoid an extra unnecessary layer of confusion I’m going with cwtsh).
The problem is, it’s the combination ‘si’ that normally gives the ‘sh’ sound in Welsh. And you kind of have to make some effort to pronounce the ‘i’, so it doesn’t work on the end of words. When speaking to someone from the north west (Bangor) I realised that this combination can even jump spaces — es i (I went) can be pronounced using the ‘sh’ sound.
So cwtsi would rhyme with chi (as in the Chinese ‘life force’, though that’s usually spelled qi — I’m not helping, I know), but that isn’t right at all. Which, I’m guessing, is why the spelling cwts exists. That one is exclusively Welsh language, but it’s my least favourite because I don’t see where the ‘sh’ sound comes from.
I’m Sticking With ‘Cwtsh’
As always, I turned to Twitter for its opinion. My question was in English, and it seems like most people use cwtch, however cwtsh was the clear second with indications that it was the preferred Welsh spelling. I was also reminded that the Welsh word for ‘mash’ is stwnsh, so we have precedence for using ‘sh’ this way at the end of words.
So it’s cwtsh when siarad Cymraeg, and given the fact we always use the Welsh ‘w’ I see no reason for there to be a separate spelling in English — but you won’t catch me criticising anyone who’s been taken in by decades of pillow propaganda.
In any case, however you want to spell it, I think it’s safe to say that sometimes we all need a good cwtsh!