With 1,025,109.8 words in the English vocabulary at the last count, surely one should be able to express something beyond Shakespeare’s tongue? Yet the more you travel and are exposed to foreign idioms, the more you’ll come across words that are simply untranslatable into English – expressions you never knew you needed, but which become obvious and indispensable as soon as you learn them. Here are 10 genius words from around the world that are frustratingly absent from the English language – and need to be coined ASAP.
Basically, ‘I can’t even’. A feeling of mute, helpless rage or extreme frustration. You know those times something so ridiculously, absurdly angering happens that it puts you in a murderous mood with no one to take it out on (because deep down, you know the driver/receptionist/salesman is just the messenger and they probably deserve to live a little longer)? Those moments you learn about something utterly unfair that you have zero power to change? Yup, that’s casebook vitutus. OK, so using the word won’t really solve the problem, but it might be comforting to know your pain has a name. It may be killing you, but at least it’s legit.
The actual eating part of your Sunday brunch ended two hours ago but you’re still sat in the same spot chatting with the same friends? You’re having a sobremesa. The post-meal equivalent of ‘pillow talk’, this word literally translates to ‘over the table’ and refers to those conversations you have over your empty plates (or the tablecloth) as you linger in a restaurant. While sobremesas can last as long as you like, they imply no change of spot, so if you move to a different table or café, then the session is automatically over.
Awwwww. This baby/kitten/puppy is just too adorable and you feel strangely compelled to pinch its plump cheeks or hug the hell out of it? Even the most cynical of us have been there: you’re experiencing gigil, the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.
Often cited as one of the best examples of an untranslatable word, saudade describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves, usually tinged with the knowledge that they will never return. Also defined as ‘the love that remains’ after someone is gone, saudade is intrinsically connected with the fado music of Portugal. So beautifully evocative and poetic is the word that it has inspired many tunes, including Cape Verdean Césarias Evora’s mellow song of the same name.
Ba-dum-bum-CHING! If the above paragraph filled you with many bitter saudades, a jayus may be exactly what you need: it refers to a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh. So yes, your dad is probably an unsuspecting jayus master.
#6 Cavoli riscaldati
OK, so these are two words rather than one, but the expression is too good to pass up. Remember how you’d decided you were never, ever getting back together with your ex, but suddenly you’re an item again? I’m afraid this smells of ‘reheated cabbage’, the likely doomed attempt to restart a failed relationship. Hmmm, what was that about romantic Italians again?!
Japanese culture’s sophisticated and contemplative streak has yielded words to qualify the subtlest and most specific of human and natural experiences. While the Japanese have a lovely word for ‘sunlight filtering through the trees’ (komorebi), tsundoku is even better: it describes the act of buying a book and leaving it unread, often piled on top of other unread books. So check the fate of your recent Amazon orders and confess: how many counts of tsundoku have you been guilty of lately?
Origin: Yaghan (of Tierra del Fuego in South America)
Not the easiest to remember, this term is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s ‘most succinct word’. You and your crush have been making eye contact and are both aware that one of you needs to start the conversation? Well, that look of mutual, passive acknowledgement you just shared is mamihlapinatapai, that is, ‘the wordless look between two people who both desire something, yet are equally reluctant to initiate’. The next time you’re having one such moment, perhaps diffuse the situation by calling it out: ‘mamihlapinatapai!… awkwaaard!’.
Hygge or hyggeligt evokes cosiness, but more – intimacy, closeness, and warmth with family and friends, often including open fires, eating, drinking, etc. This very Danish (or Scandinavian, as other Nordic countries have their own variation) art encompasses the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures, and is best practiced on a remote cabin retreat with a small circle of besties or chilled-out relatives.
Literally ‘uncountriedness’, dépaysement is linked to concepts of exoticism and disorientation and refers to the feeling, either pleasant or unsettling, that you experience when you’re out of your home country or simply taken out of your familiar surroundings. In its wider usage, you don’t even need to go abroad to be dépaysé: anything that transports you away from your usual environment, such as a hotel night in your own city or reading this very list of foreign words, can be enough to metaphorically ‘uncountry’ you!
After almost nine years in the UK, 'ex-French' girl Camille quit her job in publishing to travel the world in February 2013 – and hasn't stopped since! She has lived temporarily in South Korea and Thailand and visited many countries working as a travel writer, content editor, and proofreader. She likes riding scooters, poetry, arthouse cinema, and scaring her mother by trying extreme/adventure sports. She rants – er, writes about her life and shares her travel 'wisdom' at Camille in Wonderlands – see you there!