Kanonical

The Untranslatables

December 19, 2020

Words in other languages

I am fascinated by untranslatable words - words from other languages that have a specific meaning but no English equivalent. We can still express the idea in a sentence of a paragraph, but it has no word equivalent. It still says something about Sapir-Whorf and the influence of language on how we think. “Language is froth on the surface of thought”, as John McCarthy says. This is also a reminder, perhaps somewhat uncomfortable at times, that there are a huge number of languages spoken around the world. Millions and millions of people speak languages we’ve never even heard of like Igbo and Magahi. And their formations can be entirely different too. For example, many Asian languages are tonal and have “tonemes”, which means that the tone, pitch, or inflection of the pronunciation of the word has meaning. Which leads to some crazy poems - this one in Mandarin is compromised of only the word “shi”, but with 22 different meanings based on the tone.

I also recently found Eunoia, which is a larger and growing collection of untranslatables.

Anyway, here are some of my favorites. Enjoy!

German

Sturmfrei

Party at home! The equivalent to the saying, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

Backpfeifengesicht

A face that is just begging to be slapped.

Erbsenzähler

Ever heard of Freud’s the Narcissism of Small Differences? This is a detail-oriented person who obsesses over them.

Verschlimmbessern

Making something worse by trying to fix it.

Wanderlust

I didn’t know this was actually German!

Schadenfreude

Taking pleasure in someone else’s folly.

Pantoffelheld

A tough guy who acts tough.. except to his wife where he’s a wimp.

Zugzwang

From chess - when you’re forced to make a decision (aka make a move) but you don’t want the board to change from what it is. In other words, no move is the best move.. but you have to move.

Kummerspeck

Translates to “sorrow bacon.” The weight you gain from emotional overeating.

Torschlusspanik

“Gate-closing panic”. Anxiety from the feeling that you’ve missed opportunities or that you’re getting too old.

Fahrvergnügen

This was overplayed by Volkswagen, but I definitely have this: it’s the love of simply driving.

Luftschloss

Someone who needs a reality check.

Schnapsleiche

Passed out drunk, literally “liquor corpse”.

Japanese

Tsundoku

How can I not start with this one? Leaving new books unread and letting them pile up.

Ikigai

A reason for being; the thing that gets you up in the morning.

Boketto

The act of gazing vacantly into the distance.

Wasuremono

Forgotten or lost things; an item left behind on a train or forgotten at home.

Bakku-shan

A woman who is beautiful.. only from behind.

Age-otori

When you look worse AFTER a haircut.

Wabi-sabi

Finding beauty within imperfections.

Yoisho

No meaning - said when flopping into a chair after a hard day at work or lifting a heavy bag.

Other Languages

Iktsuarpok

The feeling of anticipation when you’re expecting someone that leads you to constantly check to see if they’re coming.

Mulatsag

Hungarian - I got this from a John von Neumann biography: “It is absolutely impossible to translate ‘mulatsag’ in one simple word. It is not a party, it is not a feast, it is not even an orgy; it is simply the spontaneous combustion of a bunch of people having a good time.”

L’esprit de l’escalier

Literally stairwell wit, the feeling one gets when thinking of the perfect thing to say just a moment too late.

Hygge

Danish - a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being. Incidentally, the Book of Hyggeseems worth a read.

Friluftsliv

“Free air life,” signifying a fundamental understanding of the positive impact of being in nature.

Parea

Greek - A group of friends who regularly gather together to share their experiences about life, their philosophies, values and ideas.

Rhwe

Tsonga - To sleep on the floor without a mat, while drunk and naked.

Kilig

Tagalog - the thrilling feeling of butterflies in your stomach that you typically feel when something romantic happens. I think the English for this is ‘twitterpated’ (you know, from the movie Bambi), but that is not widely used.

Ya’aburnee

Arabic - A way to declare your hope that your loved one will outlive you because of how unbearable it would be to live without them.

Layogenic

Tagalog - Someone that looks incredible from far away, but up close is a mess..

Pochemuchka

Russian - A person who asks too many questions.

Tartle

From Scotland? The feeling of panic when you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t remember.


Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.