Note: This post was originally entitled “Words and expressions that we wish English had.” Other such articles describe “untranslatable words.” Since an English gloss is provided for each term, I don’t find them untranslatable – they just carry a lot of meaning in a single lexeme, and there may not be an individual single word in other languages that carries the same signatum.
While these two are not gazing at each other, the essence of mamihlapinatapei, which I posted about earlier, is captured here.
This list of words for which there is no English equivalent popped up on the internet over at TheWeek a couple of days ago, and I’ve seen it referenced by more than one friend on Facebook:
1. Shemomedjamo (Georgian)
You know when you’re really full, but your meal is just so delicious, you can’t stop eating it? The Georgians feel your pain. This word means, “I accidentally ate the whole thing.”
2. Pelinti (Buli, Ghana)
Your friend bites into a piece of piping hot pizza, then opens his mouth and sort of tilts his head around while making an “aaaarrrahh” noise. The Ghanaians have a word for that. More specifically, it means “to move hot food around in your mouth.”
3. Layogenic (Tagalog)
Remember in Clueless when Cher describes someone as “a full-on Monet… from far away, it’s OK, but up close it’s a big old mess”? That’s exactly what this word means.
4. Rhwe (Tsonga, South Africa)
College kids, relax. There’s actually a word for “to sleep on the floor without a mat, while drunk and naked.”
5. Zeg (Georgian)
It means “the day after tomorrow.” Seriously, why don’t we have a word for that in English?
6. Pålegg (Norwegian)
Sandwich Artists unite! The Norwegians have a non-specific descriptor for anything — ham, cheese, jam, Nutella, mustard, herring, pickles, Doritos, you name it — you might consider putting into a sandwich.
7. Lagom (Swedish)
Maybe Goldilocks was Swedish? This slippery little word is hard to define, but means something like, “Not too much, and not too little, but juuuuust right.”
8. Tartle (Scots)
The nearly onomatopoeic word for that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t quite remember.
9. Koi No Yokan (Japanese)
The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love.
10. Mamihlapinatapei (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego)
This word captures that special look shared between two people, when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want, but neither want to do.
11. Fremdschämen (German); also Myötähäpeä (Finnish)
The kinder, gentler cousins of Schadenfreude, both these words mean something akin to “vicarious embarrassment.” Or, in other words, that-feeling-you-get-when-you-watch-Meet the Parents.
12. Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese)
Leave it to the Brazilians to come up with a word for “tenderly running your fingers through your lover’s hair.”
13. Greng-jai (Thai)
That feeling you get when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them.
14. Kaelling (Danish)
You know that woman who stands on her doorstep (or in line at the supermarket, or at the park, or in a restaurant) cursing at her children? The Danes know her, too.
Such lists are quite common around the net, and I thought I’d add a few which I’ve gathered along the way.
German has quite a collection of these gems:
Backpfeifengesicht: A face badly in need of a fist.
(For more lovely illustrations of some of these terms, head over to Anjana Iyer’s “Found in Translation” page.)
Buchtrauer: the period of mourning that follows the ending of a beloved book. [Note: I made this word up recently, as I finished Lord of the Rings for the nth time. Others may have come up with it independently, but I claim it as my own.]
Drachenfutter: Peace offerings for wives from guilty husbands. Lit. “Dragon fodder”
Erklärungsnot: The feeling of discomfort brought on by the inability to come up with a satisfactory explanation.
Fernweh: A feeling of homesickness for a place you have never visited.
Fisselig: Flustered to the point of incompetence – a temporary state of inexactitude and sloppiness that is elicited by another person’s nagging.
Fremdschämen – agony over someone elses misfortune.
Futterneid: The feeling you get when you order something at a restaurant and you envy what someone else has ordered.
Gardinenpredigt: A verbal diatribe along the lines of “Why can’t you get off your lazy butt and get a job, oh my blessed mother was right, I could have married that fine doctor next door but no, …”. Lit. “Curtain Sermon”
Gretchenfrage (German) – A question asked for the purpose of finding out someone’s real intentions.
With thanks to Jenner. I sent this strip to my wife when I was interested in ramping up our relationship.
Gemütlichkeit: A German word which describes, according to Wikipedia, “a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities include coziness, peace of mind, belonging, well being, and social acceptance.” Imagine sitting in front of a warm fire on a frosty night, with a good book in one hand and a glass of your favorite beverage at your side…
Korinthenkacker: a person overly concerned with trivial details. Lit. “Currant crapper”
Kummerspeck: Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Lit. “Worry bacon”. The bacon part refers not to what we eat, but to the excess pounds we put on as a result.
Luftmensch: (air person) A dreamer
Luftschloß: A castle in the air, an unattainable dream.
Neidbau: A building (often of little or no value to the proprietor) constructed with the sole purpose of harassing or inconveniencing his neighbor in some way.
Radfahrer: One who flatters superiors and browbeats subordinates
Ruinenlust: The delight that comes when contemplating ruins.
Schadenfreude: joy that one feels as a result of some one else’s misfortune.
A bad pun
Scheißbedauern: The disappointment one feels when things turn out not nearly so badly as one had hoped (Lit. “shit regret”).
Sehnsucht: “life-longings”, an intense desire for alternative states and realisations of life, even if they are unattainable.
Torschlusspanik: the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. This word is most frequently applied to women who race the ‘biological clock’ to wed and bear children. Lit. “Gate Closing Panic”
Waldeinsamkeit: The feeling of being alone in the woods.
Weltschmerz: A gloomy, romanticized, world-weary sadness, experienced most often by privileged youth.
Zechpreller: Someone who leaves without paying the bill.
Here is another collection of such words; some are taken from They Have a Word for It ; others come from The Meaning of Tingo; still others are from In Other Words; some were collected by Dr. Tim Lomas; and others again are from Mogg knows where.
ʻAkihi (Hawaiʻian): Getting directions from someone and wandering off without paying the least attention to them. This is probably why Moses was stuck in the desert for 40 years.
Alamnaka (Ulwa, Nicaragua): to find one’s niche or meet a kindred soul.
Ariga-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn’t want them to do and tried to prevent them doing, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude.
Attaccabottoni (Italian): A doleful bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless tales.
Aware (Japanese): The feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty.
Bakku-shan (Japanese): Seeing a woman who looks attractive from behind, but not from the front.
Baraka (Arabic): A git of spiritual energy hat can be used for mundane purposes
Birilulo (Kiriwina, New Guinea): Comparing yams to settle disputes.
Boketto (ぼけっと) (Japanese): Gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking. The French expression for this is “dans la lune” (in the moon); my elementary school French teacher, Mme. Hopstein, would tell me I was doing this all the time. Which was true.
Bonga (Santali): Spirit of a place that must be dealt with
Cavoli riscaldati (Italian) – When you attempt to start up a failed relationship or love affair. Literally, ‘reheated cabbage.’
Cibi cere (Italian): Pronunciation of CBCR, acronym for “cresci bene che ripasso,” which means “if you look like that when you grow up, I’ll come calling.”
Conmoción (Spanish): Emotion held in common by a group or gathering
Cúbóg (Irish) – a collection of Easter eggs.
Culaccino (Italian): The mark left on a table by a cold glass.
Dadirri (Australian aboriginal) term – a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening.
Dépaysment (French): The feeling that comes from not being in your home country
Desbundar (Portuguese) – letting it all hang out and losing your inhibitions while having fun.
Desenrascanço (Portuguese) – to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation.
Epibreren (Dutch): A Dutch verb which was coined in 1954 by Simon Carmiggelt . It means to do unspecified work that looks very grand, but which means nothing at all. Office workers and interns do a lot of this.
From Scott Adams’ “Dilbert”
Farpotshket (Yiddish): Something that is all fouled up, especially as the result of an attempt to fix it.
Forelsket (Norwegian) – That intoxicatingly euphoric feeling you experience when you’re first falling in love.
Friluftsliv (Norwegian) – Essentially the joy of outdoor living, exploring and appreciating nature.
Friolero (Spanish) – Someone especially susceptible to cold temperatures.
Fucha (Polish): To use company time and resources for personal ends.
Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu (Tibetan) – Giving an answer that is unrelated to the question. Lit. – “Giving a green answer to a blue question.”
Gattara (Italian) – the Italian version of the “crazy cat lady,” an older lonely woman who devotes herself to caring for stray cats.
Gigil (Tagalog): When something is so cute you have to pinch it.
Glas wen (Welsh): Literally, a “blue smile” – a smile that is insincere or mocking. My favorite example of this comes from one of my beloved children’s books:
“Then Henry B. Swap said, ‘The job isn’t finished because Mary Anne isn’t out of the cellar, so Mike Mulligan won’t get paid.’ And he smiled again in a rather mean way.” (Burton, Virginia Lee, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel)
Goya (Urdu): The suspension of disbelief that can occur when listening to good storytellling.
Gökotta (Swedish): Otta is Swedish for “early morning,” and “gök” means “chirp.” A Gökotta is a “chirp morning,” or a dawn picnic or outing to hear the birds sing.
Grilagem (Brazilian Portuguese) The old practice of putting a cricket in a box of newly faked documents, until the moving insect’s excrement makes the papers look old and genuine.
Guanxi (Mandarin): This is one of the essential ways of getting things done in traditional Chinese society. To build up good guanxi, you do things for people such as give them gifts, take them to dinner, or grant favors. Conversely, you can also “use up” your guanxi with someone by calling in favors owed. Once a favor is done, an unspoken obligation exists. Maybe because of this, people often try to refuse gifts, because, sooner or later, they may have to repay the debt. However the bond of guanxi is rarely acquitted, because once the relationship exists, it sets up an endless process that can last a lifetime.
Gumusservi (Turkish): Moonlight shining on the water
Moonlight on the water – Freedom, NH.
Hanyauku (Rukwangali) – The act of walking on tiptoes across warm sand.
Hart ducha (Polish): Self-mastery in the face of internal and external forces
Hikikomori (Japanese) – A teenager or 20-something who has withdrawn from social life, often obsessed with TV and video games. (Note that this is often the definition applied incorrectly to the Japanese term otaku, which indicates someone passionately devoted to some aspect of society such as anime or manga. They may use geekspeak, but they have no problem communicating with others, especially those who share their passion.)
Hiraeth (Welsh) – A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past. See Saudade.
Hygge (Danish) – the Danish equivalent of the German “Gemütlichkeit” (see above), but which permeates all aspect of Danish life and which contributes to the country’s status as one of the happiest in the world.
Hózh’q (Navajo): The beauty of life, as seen and created by a person
Iktsuarpok (Inuit): To go outside to check if an expected visitor has arrived, over and over again.
Ilunga (Tshiluba): From the south-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, this word has been chosen by numerous translators as the world’s most untranslatable word. It means a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time it occurs, to tolerate it the second time, but to neither forgive nor tolerate a third offense.
Istiqâra (Arabic): A request for spiritual or practical assistance in the form of a dream
Jayus (Indonesian): A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.
Jeruhuk (Malay) The act of stumbling into a hole that is concealed by long grass.
Jugaad (Hindi) – This means “an innovative fix” or a “repair derived from ingenuity,” as seen in images all over the internet. Just Google for “There, I fixed it.”
Kaizen (Japanese) – used exclusively in business, the Japanese concept of continuous improvement involving input and suggestions from all levels, from the CEO to the janitors.
kalsarikännit: (Finnish): The picture below says it all.
Kilig (Tagalog) – The stupid-silly rush you feel immediately after something good happens, especially when it comes to love.
Kolleh (Yiddish): A beautiful bride
Komorebi (Japanese): The sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees.
Koro (Chinese): The hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking.
Koshatnik (Russian): A dealer in stolen cats.
Kuchisabishii (Japanese): When you’re not hungry, but you eat because your mouth is lonely.
Kula (Trobriand Islands): Sacred, endless process of gift giving
Kyoikumama (Japanese): This word refers to a mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement.
Land nám (Icelandic): The sanctification of new land by mythologizing it
Layogenic (Tagalog) – When someone looks attractive from far away, but, oh, they’re getting closer, oh, never mind.
Lieko (Finnish) – The submerged trunk of a tree.
Linti (Farsi) – One who whiles away his or her life under a tree.
Mångata (Swedish): The roadlike reflection of the moon on the water (See Gumusservi)
Masa bodoa (Javanese): Sociopolitically passive and unaware.
Maya (Sanskrit): The mistaken belief that a symbol is the same as the reality that it represents
Mbuki-mvuki (Bantu): To shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance.
Mokita (New Guinean): Truth everybody knows but nobody speaks.
Muditā (Pāli and Sanskrit: मुदिता) – The joy one feels for the joy of others, essentially the opposite of envy or Schadenfreude (see above)
Nadi (Balinese): To temporarily inhabit another dimension
Nakhes (Yiddish): A mixture of pleasure and pride, particularly the kind that a parent receives from a child.
Natsukashii (Japanese) – a nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer.
Nemawashi (Japanese): Informal feeling-out and consensus gathering
Olfrygt (Viking Danish) The fear of a lack of ale, i.e. when you are out of town and have no idea where to find beer.
Ondinnonk (Iroquoian): The soul’s innermost benevolent desires.
Onsra (Boro language of India) – That bittersweet feeling of loving for the last time — in other words, that feeling you get when you know a love won’t last.
Oodal (Tamil) – The fake-sulking you do after getting into a lovers’ tiff, usually over something inconsequential.
Orenda (Huron) – the power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces such as fate.
Ostranenie (Russian): Art as defamiliarization; making familiar perceptions seem strange
Paasa (Tagalog) – A person who leads someone on (intentionally or not). Appearing as if they are genuinely interested romantically when they aren’t.
Panapo’o (Hawai’ian): The act of scratching your head to help you remember something.
Papakata (Cook Islands Maori) – To have one leg shorter than the other. As in the wicked duke of Coffin Castle, but never describe him that way unless you wish to be slit from your guggle to your zatch and be fed to the geese. You must always say that one of his legs is longer than the other.
Pesamenteiro (Portuguese): one who joins groups of mourners at the home of a dead person, apparently to offer condolences but in reality is just there for the refreshments.
Pilkunnussija (Finnish): We call these “grammar Nazis” – the people who will sacrifice everything good about their lives – popularity, mental health, or social acceptance – in order to find and correct someone else’s grammar or punctuation errors. The Finnish word is very rude, and refers to having illicit carnal knowledge of commas.
Pisan zapra (Malay): The time needed to eat a banana.
Plunderbund (Dutch): Group of alliance of financial or poltical interests that exploits the public
Pochemuchka: A person who asks too many questions. College lecture rooms and Hell are both full of these. A three-hour meeting that runs overtime attracts these individuals in the same way a six-week-old wildebeest carcass attracts vultures.
Potlach (Haida): The ceremonial act of gaining social respect by giving away wealth
Prozvonit (Czech, Slovak): To call a mobile phone only to have it ring once so that the other person would call back, allowing the caller not to spend money on minutes.
Radioukacz (Polish)- Telegraphist on the Soviet side of the iron curtain, working for the resistance movement.
Rasa (Sanskrit): The mood or sentiment that is evoked be a work of art
Razbliuto (Russian): The feeling a person retains for someone he or she once loved.
Retrouvailles (French): The happiness of meeting again after a long time.
Sabi (Japanese): Beautiful patina
Sabsung (Thai): To slake an emotional or spiritual thirst to be revitalized
Saudade (Portuguese): a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. It often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return. A stronger form of saudade may be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing.
Sgriob (Gaelic) The itchiness that oversomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whiskey. In more common usage, a scratch or a scrape, but this one has become entirely specialized.
Shibui (Japanese): Beauty of aging
Shih (Chinese): An insightful, elegant kind of knowledge
Shinrin-yoku (Japanese): “forest bathing.” Taking joy in healing forest walks and communion with nature.
Shitta (Farsi): Leftovers from dinner that will be eaten for breakfast.
Shlimazel: (Yiddish) – from German “schlimm” (bad) and Hebrew “mazel” (luck, fortune) – a perpetually unlucky person.
Sitike (Apache): In‑laws who are formally committed to help during crises.
Slampadato (Italian): Being addicted to the infrared glow of tanning salons
Soare cu dinti (Romanian): Literally, “sun with teeth.” Weather that looks beautiful through the window but which is in truth cold enough to freeze the nuts off a brass bridge.
Sobremesa (Spanish): The time spent after lunch or dinner, talking to the people with whom you shared the meal.
Sukha (Sanskrit) – genuine lasting happiness independent of circumstances.
Ta (Chinese): To understand things and thus take them lightly
taarradhin (Arabic): Arabic has no word for “compromise” in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement. But a much happier concept, taarradhin, exists in Arabic. It implies a happy solution for everyone, a win/win situation. It’s a way of resolving a problem without anyone losing face.
tasleek (Arabic): Common in Saudi Arabia – to nod along and pretend you care what another person is saying.
tatemae (Japanese): Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one’s position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one’s private views, or honne. Honne may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one’s closest friends. (Wikipedia)
Tarab (Arabic) – a musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment.
Tingo (Pascuense , Easter Island): The act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.
Tretår (Swedish) A second refill (patår) on a cup of coffee (tår), hence a “threefill”
Toska (Russian): “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” –Vladimir Nabokov
Tsujigiri (Japanese): To test a new sword casually on a passerby. This was described in James Clavell’s Shogun, when a samurai tested out Blackthorne’s new katana on an oil seller. See the Wikipedia entry for more history. A modern version of tsujigiri is reflected in my favorite Charles Addams cartoon of all time:
The caption reads, “Death ray, Fiddlesticks! Why, it doesn’t even slow them up!”
Tsundoku (Japanese) – The act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up with other such unread books. Guilty as charged, but then again one can never have enough books.
Tuqburni (Arabic) – The literal translation is “You bury me,” referring to a love so deep you can’t imagine living life without your partner.
Uitwaaien (Dutch) – The invigorating feeling of taking a walk in the wind.
Utepils (Norwegian) – To sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer.
Verschlimmbessern (German) – the act of making something worse in a failed attempt to improve a situation.
Viraag (Hindi) – The emotional pain of being separated from a loved one.
Voorpret (Dutch) – That feeling of excitement you get even before an event actually takes place.
Vybafnout (Czech): To jump out and say “boo”
Wabi (Japanese): A flawed detail that creates an elegant whole.
Wabi-sabi (Japanese): Finding beauty in imperfections, an acceptance of the cycle of life and death.
Waq’f (Arabic): Property given to God
Won (Korean): Unwillingness to let go of an illusion
Yaourter (French): Literally, “to yogurt,” referring to the practice of singing along to a song for which you know neither the lyrics nor the language.
Ygen (Japanese): An awareness of the universe that trigers feelings too deep and mysterious for words
Yoin (Japanese): Experiential reverberation that continues to move one long after the initial external stimulus has ceased.
Yoko meshi (Japanese): Literally, “horizontal rice,” or a “sideways meal.” Japanese writing is typically top-to-bottom, thus this term defines the stress experienced when speaking a foreign language.
Yuan bei (Chinese) – a sense of complete and perfect accomplishment.
Yūgen (Japanese): A profound awareness of the universe which evokes feelings that are inexplicably deep and too mysterious for words. This is what I imagine Carl Sagan was trying to teach people to feel,
Zalatwic (Polish): Using acquaintances to accomplish things unofficially.
Zanshin (Japanese): A state of relaxed mental alertness in the face of danger
Zapoi (Russian): Several days of continuous drunkenness during which one withdraws from society.
Zeg (Georgian) It means “the day after tomorrow.” Seriously, why don’t we have a word for that in English?
As an addendum, for more interesting feelings that can’t be described in a single word (except made-up ones) I recommend perusing The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. An example:
Anecdoche: n. – a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.
 Jacot de Boinod, Adam, The Meaning of Tingo, (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).
 Christopher J. Moore, In Other Words (London, Elwin Street Limited, 2004)
 Wonder if Mark Hoffman knew about this technique?