14 Beautiful Untranslatable Words

With the worldwide domination of ‘hygge’, and the increasing prevalence of its little sister ‘fika’, untranslatable words, particularly from Scandinavia, are rather in vogue. On our little island we are quick to borrow traditions, cuisines and language from other cultures – hence why we haul in our German Christmas trees, enjoy a curry and speak a hybrid latinate-Francophone-Germanic language. It is, in my opinion, what makes us interesting (not to get all Brexit on the subject, of course..).

But our quickness to borrow tends to make things all about us – how we can use and adapt it, how it relates to our culture and lives. What I love about some of these untranslatable words is how much they are a part of the place from whence they came. Like the word ‘Hanyauku’, from a Namibian language, which is the feeling of walking on tip toes across hot sand. That’s never a word we would come up with in the British Isles. Similarly, Japan, whose capital Tokyo has more Michelin-star restaurants that Paris and New York combined, has ‘Kuidaore’ – to eat yourself into bankruptcy.

Of course there are many words that have meanings so universal that it is quite a wonder that we haven’t adopted them already. There are romantic, soulful words, like ‘Mamihlapinatapai’ from Tierra del Fuego, which means ‘the wordless look between two people who both desire something, yet are equally reluctant to initiate’. The word itself may be a bit of a mouthful, but perhaps it speaks to our British emotional backwardness that this sentiment that we all know so well, has no English name. Similarly, Germany has ‘Fernweh’ – a homesickness and longing for a place you’ve never been.

Not all these universal words have such sophistication, of course. In Georgian, the word ‘Shemomedjamo‘ means ‘to continue eating past the point of being full because the food tastes so good’ – I experience this on an almost daily basis, WHY is there no English word for this?! Others include the Filipino word ‘Gigil’ (the overwhelming urge to squeeze or pinch something very cute) and Sweden’s ‘Tidsotimist’ (a person who is always late because they think they have more time than they have). One of my favourites following a recent trip to the hairdressers is the Japanese word ‘Age-otori’ – to look worse after a haircut.

Dotted through this post are pictures with other words that I’ve taken a particular liking to – here’s a list of them altogether:

Waldeinsamkeit
(German)
– the feeling of being alone in the woods
I think we all have our own version of this feeling – and what’s so lovely about it is that it will have a slightly different meaning for every different person.

Komorebi
(Japanese)
– sunlight filtering through trees
Of course there needs to be a word for this.

Mångata
(Swedish)
– the glimmering, roadlike reflection the moon creates on water
This is the word that inspired this post. It was so romantic, so evocative, so in tune with nature and the earth – I just loved it.

Sobremesa
(Spanish)
– the time after lunch or dinner spent talking to the people you shared the meal with
How wonderfully Spanish to have a word for this part of communal eating and socialising – it is also one of my favourite parts of a meal (because when the food’s there I do have a habit of silently ploughing through it ignoring my companions. Sorry).

Tsundoku
(Japanese)
– the act of buying a book and leaving it unread, often piled together with other unread books
This is basically the definition of me – this house is brimming with unread books, so I can totally relate. Seriously, this one made even my long suffering boyfriend snort with irony.

Meraki
(Greek)
– to do something with soul creativity and love; when you leave a piece of yourself in your work
This really speaks for itself – it encapsulates everything I love about the maker community and independent, local producers. Well done Greece.

Aware
(Japanese)
– the bittersweetness of a brief and fading moment of transcendent beauty
Quite a deep one to end on, but I liked how linked it is to the English meaning of ‘aware’ – showing how we are all perhaps not so dissimilar.

Have you picked up any favourite untranslatable words? Or if English isn’t your first language, I’d love to know if you have any favourite English words 🙂

 

  • Wow such a cool post! so many beautiful words and meanings 🙂

  • As foreign languages student I found the untranslatable words amazing. I love words which can describe human feelings or a particular expression of Nature. In Italian (my mothertongue) I love “meriggiare” a verb which means: to escape the heat of the midday sun by resting in the shade” or “Komorebi a Japanese word which describes the light effect through the trees.

    Your post is so interesting!

  • Oh this post had me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, as a language teacher in Barcelona I find myself obsessed with untranslatable words. Thank you for this gorgeus list of little gems!! I hope you don’t mind if I pop it in my newsletter tomorrow to inspire and motivate my readers. <3
    Peta x
    http://www.pe-ta.com

  • This is such a wonderful post. I love language and I love words. I also really like that you included some Swedish, yay! There are definitely moments when I want to use a Swedish word but can’t find an English one that translates.

    Mimmi xx
    http://www.scribblesandcoffees.com

  • Adore this post – how wonderful are these words! My favourite is Cwtch – a welsh word. People translate it as a hug or cuddle, which works well. But it’s really a safe place; somewhere you feel protected and at ease. I have dog called Cwtch – she is my safe place, wee defender of my honour! 🙂

  • What a beautiful post! I had never imagined there would be a post for the feeling of being alone in the woods or buying a book and not reading it!
    Try to translate ‘philotimo’ a virtue Greeks are proud of being raised with, difficult to translate or find in other cultures and languages too.
    I bloody love languages!

    x
    http://www.natbees.com/

  • Kerry

    This is such a lovely post. Isn’t language amazing, I want to adopt all of these x x

  • Annabel Wyatt

    LOVE THIS! I heard a French saying that translates as “Three times nothing” that sums up their nonchalant beauty! I’m going to try to learn some and drop them in conversation hehe (annabelwyattart.com) xx