12 Untranslatable Words for 2012

Category: Language

While there aren’t really 100 words for “snow” in Inuit languages, there are plenty of other words that are practically impossible to translate neatly into English. For your delectation, here are our top 12 untranslatable words for 2012:

Dépaysement (French). This word calls to mind the destabilizing feeling that comes from not being in one’s own country or context.

Iktsuarpok (Inuit). The act of going outside to check if anyone is coming. Perfect for when you’re waiting for a party to start and no one is there yet.

Ilunga (Tshuliba). This famously untranslatable word from the southwest Congo describes the person “who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense,” explains one source.

Jayus (Indonesian). A joke told so badly and that is so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh. We think this word is invaluable at open-mic stand up nights.

Lagom (Swedish). Somewhere between “just the right amount” and “enough,” this word expresses a sense of balance and satisfaction with having your needs met without needing excess.

Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan). From an indigenous language in Tierra del Fuego, this is the wordless, meaningful look two people share who both want to initiate something but are both reluctant to start. Especially helpful when appetizers arrive!

Ponte (Italian). This word literally means “bridge,” but also refers to an extra day off taken to make a national holiday that falls on a Tuesday or Thursday into a four-day weekend. Who really wants to work on that Monday or Friday anyway?

Prozvonit (Czech). In a place where it does not cost anything to receive cellphone calls, only to make them, this word is quite logical. Prozvonit is to call a mobile phone and only let it ring once “so that the other person would call back, allowing the caller not to spend money on minutes,” often from a cheaper landline. Many other languages have a similar word: toque in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, trznuti in Bosnian, and squillo in Italian.

Saudade (Portuguese). A feeling of longing for something or someone that you have loved and lost. A word of mournful beauty that’s more than just nostalgia, it also relates to the Fado music tradition and be found in countless songs.

Taarradhin (Arabic). While there is no exact word for “compromise” in the English sense of struggle and disagreement as a way to come to an arrangement, there is a much happier concept in Arabic. It implies a happy solution for everyone — an “I win, you win” — and is a way of resolving a problem without anyone losing face.

Tartle (Scottish). A verb for the hesitation you feel while introducing someone due to having forgotten his or her name.

Yoko meshi (Japanese). “As an untranslatable, this one ranks high on my list of favorites,” explains linguist Christopher J. Moore. “I could not improve upon the background given by commentator Boye Lafayette de Mente about this beautiful word. Taken literally, yoko means ‘horizontal,’ and meshi means ‘boiled rice.’ Combined, the sense is one of ‘a meal eaten sideways.’ This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a humorous reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally. How do English-speakers describe the headache of communicating in an alien tongue? I don’t think we can, at least not with as much ease.”

Are there any other untranslatable words we should know about? Let us know below!

Photo attribution: Colin_K