Useful words with no English equivalent

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112 Responses to “Useful words with no English equivalent”

  1. chris eaton says:

    my favorite is “fiaca” – the argentine spanish word for the feeling you get — perhaps on a sunday afternoon — when you don’t want to do anything.

  2. anonymity86 says:

    I’d like to add one: Mechutanim (transliterated, so forgive the spelling) I believe it is a Yiddish word and it refers to the relationship with your child’s in-laws. For example, if my parents were to introduce my wife’s parents to someone at a party they could say “I’d like you to meet my mechutanim…” I have never found an English equivalent to that word.

  3. Jacob Ewing says:

    Tartle is something I often experience, because I’m really, embarrassingly terrible with names.

    You and me both, … err… … ..umm…

    • ashypete says:

      My wife is particularly bad with names, a fact which is made worse by the fact that she teaches a few hundred students every year – that’s many times when you can embarrass yourself with not remembering a name. So, if we run into one of her old students, her strategy is to introduce me and I ask the person for their name as politely as I can. This technique works very well for her but it obviously only works if you have a willing accomplice.

  4. Alec Story says:

    There is an old word in English that means “the day after tomorrow” (see number 5): overmorrow.  It’s counterpart is ereyesterday.

    Help me bring them back!

    • Theo Grace says:

      Epicaracacy has been in the English language since before the modern English language existed and is a far better word for the exact same concept. Also (though this may be my lack of German) it is my understanding that schadenfreude only applies if you witness their discomfort and not, for example, if you were to say, hear it described over the phone after the event. Epicaracacy is pleasure at anothers discomfort regardless of if you directly observe it.

      • cdh1971 says:

        Schadenfreude has entered the English language and is now a loan word, and like many loan words, perhaps the meaning in English is slightly different from the donor language.  

  5. Dan Hibiki says:

    14. Jozxyqk (Cat)

    It’s the sound you make when you get your sexual organs trapped in something.

  6. Timothy Krause says:

    9. Koi No Yokan (Japanese)

    The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love.

    I believe the English phrase for this is love at first sight. Popular variants are eros, destiny, and hormones.

    • Timothy Krause says:

      When experienced by a given male many times in rapid succession, with many subjects, and little reciprocity, I call it stalkery shiverin’. But that’s just an idiolect of mine.

    • Koi No Yokan is a three word phrase (“omen of love”), and we have an extremely similar phrase (love at first sight) in English. I’m not sure why it is included in this list.

    • Lilah says:

      They are not the same. If you experience koi no yokan, you have not fallen in love. Koi no yokan is the feeling that the two of you will come to love each other in the future. (one of) The Japanese terms for love at first sight is “hitomebore”.

      • Timothy Krause says:

        That’s arguably true about love at first sight, and who knows what love *really* is, anyway? But thanks for the information!

    • jhoosier says:

      It’s hard to say whether this is a word or not.  It’s got a particle in the middle (no) to connect two nouns.  That’s what always gets me about these articles.  They often include what would be phrases in the other language.

    • Paul Renault says:

      Not quite the same meaning.  Love at first sight is often just by one person, and the Japanese phrase implies both will be falling in love – not now, but soon.

      In french, it’s ‘coup de foudre’ – thunderbolt.

  7. Hebrew: “Davka”. Sometimes it means “on purpose”. But it is used as a one word exclamation for why you did something annoying or mean.
    A: why didn’t you make a new pot of coffee after finishing the last one?
    B: Davka!

  8. dioptase says:

    Ah, but the beauty of English is that it’s not above appropriating any word from any language we find useful.  Which is why it’s such a weird stew.

    For fun, think of synonyms for common words and try to trace the origins of each.  You get Greek, Latin, French, German, Celtic, and other versions of basically the same word.  So we even steal words we already have “native” versions of.

    • hymenopterid says:

      And we have words like conservative, conservator, and conservationist that mean wildly different things.
      I keep trying to tell people that I’m a cleric, but they insist I’m just a lowly clerk.

  9. Bevatron Repairman says:

    Can anyone help me out with the following:  I seem to recall reading about a Russian word that is the emotion one feels for someone that one used to be — but is no longer — in love with.  I guess sort of a nostalgia for the the way one used to feel.  I thought it nicely captured a real emotion that’s not named in English.

  10. Timothy Krause says:

    Nabokov’s disquisition on poshlost in Nikolai Gogol springs to mind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poshlost

  11. Brazilians often brag that portuguese has exclusivity for the word ‘saudade’ which is the feeling you feel when you miss someone, some place, or something dearly (different from nostalgia).

    • Garrett Eaton says:

      Yeah! I was going to mention this one!

    • The Japanese say natsukashii for roughly this, though there’s definitely an element of nostalgia also wrapped up in the word.

      EDIT: I now see someone has already mentioned this word below!

    • WhyBother says:

       In English that would be a “to long for something” or just the state of “longing”. This is as opposed to “yearning for” or “pining for” something. You don’t hear it used much except in period peaces set in the Victorian era, where it tends to be used as polite hyperbole (as in, “I long for another good party”).

      At this point, we have slightly more words that we care to use. They sort of come in and out of fashion every few years.

  12. Timothy Krause says:

    Pålegg would be covered by cold cuts in most, non-Nutellaic, cases.

    Lagom would be covered by lukewarm, middling, or perfect depending on the context: that is, unless lagom has a sense that they’re not providing and that I’m ignorant of.

    I find the inclusion of many of these words confusing, as they would seem to have multiple English equivalents.

    • lagom says:

      Oh, but “lagom” can refer to far more things than lukewarm can be used for. It can be an amount (How much coffee do you want? A lagom amount), a temperature (should I turn the thermostat up? No, it’s lagom), or pretty much anything one could have an opinion on.

      It is not middling because it does not necessarily refer to the mathematical average or mean. It is the right amount, even if it is a bit more or less than the middle. “Perfect” has a more positive or idealized ring to it than lagom does, but “sufficient” is too dry… It is the sweet spot, it is in balance, it is tailored to the person (a lagom size sweater depends on the wearer), it is hard to quantify without context but precise in the intent with which it is used.

      It’s difficult to make an exact definition, which is why it is such a great word. Swedish does have more direct equivalents to the words you listed (ljummen, medelstor, perfekt), but lagom captures and extends the right parts of these concepts in a very lagom way.

    • Not so sure about “pålegg”. It’s anything you could add to bread; in fact, the moment it goes on bread, it becomes “pålegg”. “Topping” would do it, except you can only use it for stuff on top of bread. Cake toppings are not “pålegg”.
      Strangely, it can also mean an injunction or other official order.

  13. gwailo_joe says:

    The Japanese example used is not the best: there are many nebulous and interesting words in that language…and of course now that I’m typing I draw a blank: typical.

    But なつかしい(natsukashii) is a good one: it’s used as a descriptive feeling of nostalgia. Very useful and often used…and while the English is adequate…rarely will you hear old friends around old photos exclaim

    “Ahahaha! Remember that night?! Nostalgic!”

    • jhoosier says:

       Genki, for one.  Also, ねこじた (nekojita), lit. “cat’s tongue”, to describe someone who can’t stand overly hot (temperature) food.

    • benher says:

      Natsukashii is awesome! And I agree, there may be better examples than Koi no Kan.

      Some personal favs not available in English:

      Yakezake 自棄酒 – drowning ones sorrows in drink
      Mottaenai 勿体無い – “what a waste” (broad nuance such as in spilled milk, unrealized potential, )
      Karoshi  過労死 – death by overwork
      Ronin ロニン – The masterless samurai – now it means the kid who takes a year or two off before University because they need to study harder for entrance exams

      And the classic:
      Otsukaresama お疲れ様 – “Thank you for your hard work.”It’s perfect for greeting a co-worker – you get to say “hi” and let them know you appreciate your efforts all at once.

      Shit… it’s hard to just think them up off the cuff in such an analytical fashion… 
      Japanese words naturally have different spectrums and nuance than English words and play a key role in shaping the culture (and visa-versa) 

      • benher says:

        Also, forgot the neo-logisms that come from English but don’t go back to English! Such as:

        My Boom マイブーム – things that I am into right now!
        Heartful ハートフル – Somewhere between emotionally moving and joyful

        or the ever nebulous:

        Skinship スキンシップ – imagine “friendship” but it means like a friendly body touch. The meaning is so broad, it can refer to anything from patting your kids on the head to grabbing your lover’s booty under the table.

      • greggman says:

        I’d add in many of the onomatopoeia words like

        sakusaku: a light crunch like biting into a croissant
        karikari: a harder crunch like corn chips
        tsurutsuru: smooth like polished marble.

  14. Timothy Krause says:

    On the other end, I’ve always loved the Anglo-Saxon morningceald, literally, “morningcold,” which is how cold Wiglaf tells the Geats their spears will be when tribes come a’maraudin’ in Beowulf, i.e., they’ll be coming for us before dawn, we’re hella fucked. I wonder if there are non-English equivalents?

  15. robcat2075 says:

    OK, but I’ve heard the French have no word for “entrepreneur” or “café.”

  16. BunnyShank says:

    Last night I had a need for a word describing roughly “appreciating jealousy”: the joy you feel from knowing someone who has it good. Found out this morning its “mudita” in Sanskrit.

  17. 10xor01 says:

    Gemütlichkeit is one that I like.

  18. rob_cornelius says:

    my favourite is a Hawaiian word “giri-giri” which is a hair such as an eyebrow hair that refuses to stay neatly put. 

    • twianto says:

      That’s almost certainly not Hawaiian (the Polynesian language); most likely a loan from the Japanese word “giri giri,” just given a somewhat different meaning, as is the case with many loanwords.

    • TheMadLibrarian says:

      Giri-giri is actually more like a cowlick, the little whorl of hair on the back of someone’s head.  The more giri-giri a child has, the more kolohe (rascally) they will be.  I think we stole it from Japanese and incorporated it into Pidgin.  I’ve never heard it used for a ‘wild hair’ before.

  19. capnmarrrrk says:

    I have a friend who is looking for “a definition for the feeling of missing some one who is right there with you”

    What can you cunning linguists bring to me?

  20. Stephan says:

    As a German I was always proud of the fact that “Angst” doesn’t have an english equivalent.

    • helenaglory says:

      Trepidation? Or perhaps, simply… angst?

      I speak German, albeit not that well. What is the difference between the German “angst” and the English?

      • twianto says:

        Nah, German “Angst” is the most common word for “fear,” “to be afraid” etc. Not ambiguous at all. Much less specific than “angst” in English.

        • WhyBother says:

           So wouldn’t the English equivalent to the broader German form of “angst” be “fear”?

          • twianto says:

            Yes. German “Angst” = “fear,” more or less. Definitely not the same meaning as “angst” in English.

            If anything, German doesn’t have a good word for “angst” as used in English.

            Loanwords are funny…

  21. Stephan says:

    But it also filled me with a lot of “Angst”…

  22. Sparrow says:

    One that most makers should know is “farpotshket”,the Yiddish word for broken because someone tried to fix it.

  23. cellocgw says:

    I was thinking that the American version, at least, of English  has no equivalent of “common sense.”

  24. Douglas Adams and John Lloyd put all those words “which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places” to good use in ‘The Meaning of Liff’, describing things that have no words.
    http://folk.uio.no/alied/TMoL.html
    My favourites: Ely, Godalming, Wrabness

  25. Boris Bartlog says:

    German ‘tüchtig’ has no good translation in English. Four hundred years ago ‘doughty’ likely meant about the same thing but the modern usage is pretty much purely arch / satirical…

  26. Ms. Anne Thrope says:

    Chi Chin pui pui – words to kiss it and make it feel better with the power of abracadadra and toadsgoboad rolled into Japanese

  27. Ian Evans says:

    Mudita (Pali & Sanskrit) : “joy. It is especially sympathetic or vicarious joy, the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being” (paraphrased from wikipedia)

    Like schadenfruede, but not.

  28. Paul Davis says:

    a whole book full of such things:

     http://www.amazon.com/They-Have-Word-Lighthearted-Untranslatable/dp/1889330469

  29. Tudza White says:

    I like this bit from Language Log http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4416

    And James Eagle sent in this one

    Wade Davis, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, 2011:In Tibetan, there is no word for a mountain summit; the very place the British so avidly sought, their highest goal, did not even exist in the language of their Sherpa porters.

    James observes that

    His claim that “no word for”=”does not exist in the language” would be rather silly even if he hadn’t accidentally refuted it in the *very same sentence* by highlighting that English has no word for “mountain summit” either…

  30. Jord says:

    Really missing in the list is the Dutch “gezellig”. Hard to translate, but it is used for every situation where two or more people are together and the atmosphere is “fine” or better than “fine”.

    It can also be used for future happenings: shall we go to the zoo? Ja, gezellig! Indicating that the answering person is looking forward to being together at the zoo.

    Personal note: with the Dutch everything must be “gezellig” as well, which can be seen as a form of social pressure.

  31. Nicky G says:

    Koi no yokan — fantastic, perfectly describes a state I’ve been in for the past month or so. It’s good. :)

  32. s2redux says:

    Don’t know if it’s useful, but I’ve enjoyed ilunga for the past few years. IIRC, it was voted the “most untranslatable word” back in the early ‘naughts. Copied this into my notes from somewhere: Described as a word from the Bantu language of Tshiluba, said to mean “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.

    What makes it extra fun is that ilunga is apparently disputed as being a real term in the Tshiluba tongue; rather, it might simply be a proper name. (But no doubt a name with a great story attached ;-)

  33. I just had a heated argu-discussion with the girlfriend about a similar thing a day ago. I do a few creative projects and sometimes I get into a focused jag on them, and she was asking if what I was doing was fun. Well, no, I wouldn’t call it fun, exactly, I’m not feeling fun. Compulsion? yeah, maybe a little, but I know the out-of-control feeling of compulsion and that’s not it. She then said “Cathexis” and showed me the definition and I didn’t think that was it either.

    The closest I could put it into words was something like “the zen-like no-happy zone when you are completely doing something you were designed to do, fulling your purpose, so much that you know you can’t stop without finishing”. As an example I postulated that scratching a cat’s happy bump that makes it lick – it’s doing what it’s wired to and utterly consumed by it – but when you stop the cat isn’t “happy” about it per se. They actually look pretty pissed.

    And it’s not happy/sad/good/bad – I imagine a compulsive problem solver solving a problem and a mountain lion tearing apart a baby both are feeling something similar. It’s just a feeling like “right now I’m doing that thing I do very well and I’m doing a lot of it and it feels purposeful”.

    What’s that word?

  34. sam1148 says:

    How does one use “Tartle” in a sentence? “I tartled”…”..there was some tarteling when I was asked to introduce my friends”. 

  35. In Afrikaans the word for “on purpose” is “aspris”. But colloquially the word can be used in a sentence like “don’t be aspris”, meaning something like, “Don’t be deliberately difficult”.

  36. Ian Kerr says:

    #10 really captures my entire young-adult life…

  37. Tom Rombouts says:

    Hi -

    I am kind of surprised no one has mentioned it yet, but there was an entire 2007 book roughly based on this idea, “The Meaning of Tingo”  (It was featured on NPR when it first came out. One of my favorites was a Japanese word to mean a woman who was attractive from the rear, but not from the front.)  http://www.amazon.com/The-Meaning-Tingo-Extraordinary-Around/dp/B002ZNJWPY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1358446452&sr=8-1&keywords=tingo

    - Tom

    • CastanhasDoPara says:

      Dang it Tom, that’s half a comment. What was the Japanese word you allude to?

      And, reluctantly I add, English does indeed have a word for that concept: butterface.

      Ah, there it is, bakku-shan.

  38. Wanker, the Brits have wanker- short, elegant, to the point without an American equivalent 

  39. dlelash says:

    Olfrygt: Danish word describing the fear that arrives when you are out of town and unable to find a place to get a beer.
    Literally means Ale-Fright. It is originally spelled Ølfrygt.

  40. wanderingwayfarer says:

    For more fun words of these sorts, look up “They Have A Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases” by Howard Rheingold.

    EDIT: whoops, I see someone beat me to the punch!

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