I have often been fascinated by words. Surprise, surprise, I know. Recently though I remember a book that I used to own that contained supposedly untranslatable words from around the world. It was an interesting little book and it got me thinking about the strength of words, especially those there just isn’t another one for.
Though I couldn’t find this particular book, some searching through Amazon.com did yield comparable results, which I may just have to pick up.
Linguist Christopher J. Moore has made a career of searching out some of the world’s most untranslatable expressions. Moore shares a few of his linguistic favorites from his book In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World. Similarly, Adam Jacot de Boinod has a book called The Meaning of Tingo: And Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World. I’ve gone through the internet and the excerpts I could find of these books to compile a list of the best — funniest, most needed, most lovely — untranslatable words out there.
Cafune (Brazilian Portuguese): The tender running of one’s fingers through the hair of one’s mate. Lovely, just…lovely. There should be a word for this. Such a word makes me think kindly of children and old lovers. Ah…
Esprit de l’escalier (French): A witty remark that occurs to you too late, literally on the way down the stairs. As a French speaker, this has always been one of my favorite idioms. How often have we thought of the perfect, flirty quip or the shrewdest comeback…five minutes too late? It’s a universal feeling for a specific frustration, and I love that the French have a such perfect phrase for it.
Faccio la scarpetta (Italian): I actually learned this phrase while visiting Italy and I always remembered it, because it spoke to me of such an Italian idea. Literally, “to wet one’s shoe,” this expression explains the act of wiping clean one’s plate using a piece bread. A quintessentially Italian (and foodie) experience.
Guanxi (Mandarin): This is of the essential ways of getting things done in traditional Chinese society. To build up good guanxi, you do nice things. Conversely, you can also “use up” your guanxi with someone by calling in favors owed. Let’s call it keeping up with the Jonses on a karmic level.
Jayus (Indonesian): Someone who tells a joke so unfunny you can’t help laughing. This describes so many people whom I love in my life.
Kaelling (Danish): A woman who stands on her doorstep yelling obscenities at her kids. Hahaha. Awesome.
Prozvonit (Czech and Slovak): To call someone’s mobile from your own to leave your number in their memory without them picking it up. Seriously, how is it there isn’t an English neologism for this idea yet?
Tartle (Scottish): To hesitate when you are introducing someone whose name you can’t quite remember. Again, I would love if there were a specific word in English for this universal conundrum.
Yoko meshi (Japanese): Taken literally, meshi means ‘boiled rice’ and yoko means ‘horizontal,’ so combined you get “a meal eaten sideways.” This expression defines the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language. Yoko is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally.
What other untranslatable words do you know?