Monday, 11 October 2010

Twenty words and phrases that don't exist in English

I’m thrilled so many of you enjoyed yesterday’s post about learning languages. Writing it really sent my brain into overdrive, thinking about the power and ability of words to convey complex emotions. After a quick consultation with Mr Google and his good friend Mr Wikipedia, I’ve compiled a list of fabulous words and phrases which have no equivalent in English. I found so many, I think I’ll start collecting them and start an occasional series of posts. Here goes – have a good chuckle!

1. l’esprit de escalier: (French) the feeling you get after leaving a conversation when you think of all the things you should have said (literally ‘the spirit of the staircase’). I am plagued by it. I could never be a comedian – I never have a swift riposte handy. Do you think of an appropriate retort hours, if not days, later like I do?
My favourite staircase. Ever.
2. meraki: (Greek) doing something with soul, creativity or love. Ooh, can’t you just relate to this?

3. forelsket: (Norwegian) the euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love. Just beautiful.

4. gheegle: (Filipino) the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute. I love this one – it sounds like ‘giggle’.

5. pochemuchka: (Russian) a person who asks a lot of questions. Er, that might even be me.
Can you ever ask too many questions?
6. pena ajena: (Mexican Spanish) the embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation. What a painful emotion that is.

7. ilunga: (Tshiluba, Congo) a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time but never a third time. Isn’t that just extraordinary? One word to convey all that. Amazing.

8. Schadenfreude: (German) the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain. Admit it, we’ve all felt it.

9. age-otori (Japanese) to look worse after a haircut. And I’m sure many of us have needed this word at some point.
Have you ever felt like this after a haircut?
10. arigata-meiwaku (Japanese) an act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude. The Japanese take the cake with this one.

11. cualacino: (Italian) the mark left on a table by a cold glass. I’ve always pondered that one.

(All found here)

12. saudade: (Portugese, Galician) the feeling one gets when realising something one once had is lost and can never be had again. I love this – it sounds so wistful and sad.

13. sgriobn: (Gaelic) the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky. I have no idea how you pronounce it but what fun!
Are you a one or two icecube whisky drinker?
(Found here)

14. hygge: (Danish) the complete absence of anything annoying, irritating or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of, and pleasure from, comforting, gentle and soothing things. I love this one!

15. kyoikumama: (Japanese) the Japanese mother who pushes her children far too hard when it comes to schoolwork (literally ‘education mother’). How horrible.

16. uitwaaien: (Dutch) to take a brief break in the countryside to clear one’s head (literally ‘to walk in the wind’). Hmm, something I should do more often on Planet Baby!
Want to come for a wander with me?
17. zalatwic: (Polish) the use of friends, bribes, personal charm or connections to get something done. Apparently this word was used a lot in the Communist era.

(All found here)

18. taarradhin (Arabic): a way of resolving a problem without anyone losing face. Hmm, handy.

19. litost (Czech): a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. How tragic!

(Found here)

And the lucky last:

20. shlimazl: (Yiddish) a chronically unlucky person. I’ve needed this word as I know people like this – I ask them how many mirrors they’ve broken, they’ve had so many years of bad luck.
I haven't done this. Yet.
(Found here)

Do you know of any foreign words or concepts which convey something we can’t in English? Do share – I’ll add them to my list. Let’s not be stuck for words ever again!


  1. What a great list Jane - thanks for sharing! I am ashamed to say that I enjoy the feeling of "Schadenfreude" and encourage the "pochemuchkas" in our house by giving them informative answers and then asking them questions back! And I (like you) suffer from l’esprit de escalier on a regular basis.

  2. That was fabulous Jane. But please don't show No. 5 to my son...I'm always being told I ask too many questions. Role reversal in action...he used to do the same when he was 2; now at 22 I'm getting my own back!

  3. Hilarious. It is so interesting that English, such a flexible language, doesn't have the words for these things after all it is not as if we don't feel these emotions too.

  4. I'm happy to have made you all smile. And you're right, Jane - it is curious given English is such a mongrel, hybrid language! J x

  5. there is a word for the feeling that two people like each other or are interested in each other but do nothing about it and leave it hanging there

    I have been looking forever for it i found it once but cant seem to find it now. I really love the concept if you finddd it that would be sickk

  6. Fabulous list, thanks Jane. I'm also fascinated by the power of words and have embraced the words hygge and Schadenfreude and uitwaaien as my own for a while (LOML and I joke that need an uitwaaien when things are getting crazy around Maxabellaland!) The others are all fresh and new for me... plenty to plunder!! x

  7. Hi Anonymous I think I have it - I'll do another post today so look there.

    So glad you enjoyed it, Bron. I love finding fellow logophiles! J x

  8. The kids are back to school today and I've finally had chance to sit down and read through the last two weeks of your posts. You are an inspiration! I'm absolutely fascinated by your stories, whether it be regarding motherhood, France or the love of all things vocabulary. Keep writing!! Meredy xo.

  9. No 10 has had me rolling around laughing!!!! My cousin lives in Japan and often regales me with amusing stories! I must ask him if he is familiar with this expression!! Loved this entry Jane! x

  10. Oh, Meredy, thanks so much! You're one of my blogging inspirations, the way you engage with your followers so well. I've never considered myself fascinating, I must say ☺. Glad you're enjoying it. It's so lovely to have an outlet of expression after 5 years on PB.

    Oh, Emma, it is fantastic. Gee, we can tie ourselves up in knots about some things! Do ask him - I'd love to know. J x


Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, you gorgeous soul. You've just made my day! J x

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