Last month I discussed the “eskimo words for snow” myth and wrote about how just because a language doesn’t have a word for something doesn’t mean people can’t talk about it anyway. To expand on that idea, people seem to be absolutely fascinated by the idea of untranslatable words: words that occur in other languages and express concepts we didn’t consider word-worthy in our own. I’m not sure why we love this evidence of our human diversity, except that it’s always fun to have your brain tweaked with the idea that the way you think of things isn’t the only way. You can see that these words are, in fact, translatable, because I’ve given them translated definitions. What we really mean is that we have no single word that is the translation of the single word in the other language. The technical term for that is a lacuna, or lexical gap. But in fact as I went browsing looking for examples of fun words, it looked like many of those listed on various web sites really do have a decent translation, sometimes even in a single word, sometimes as a word phrase. (For example, gattara (Italian) means crazy cat lady, plain and simple.) But here are a few fun “untranslatable” words I found that seem to me to fill some English gaps.
Schadenfreude - (German) n. the act of taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. It isn’t sadism; it’s satisfaction at pain that’s perceived to be deserved in some way. I start with this one because it’s one of the most common examples cited, and you’ve probably already heard of it. We’re all familiar with the concept - we may even experience it ourselves when a tyrannical boss or a loathed ex gets his comeuppance. English speakers recognize the concept, but don’t have a single word that encapsulates it, and that’s the essence of these “untranslatable” words, and their delight. “They have a word for that? That’s perfect!”
shooper - (Shona) n. a person who says the one thing that keeps an argument going when everyone else was ready to drop it
trepverter - (Yiddish) n. witty riposte or comeback thought of only after it’s too late to use (literally staircase words)
‘akihi - (Hawai’ian) “to go ‘akihi” v. to listen to directions (for getting somewhere) and then walk off and promptly forget them
tingo - (Pascuense) v. to gradually steal all the possessions out of a neighbor’s house by borrowing and never returning
verschlimmbessern - (German) n. to make something worse when trying to improve it
karelu - (Tulu) n. the mark left on skin from wearing something tight (Hey, isn’t this a kind of relief printing, when you think about it?)
mångata - (Swedish) and also yakamoz - (Turkish) n. the road-like reflection of the moon in the water
komorebi - (Japanese) n. the dappled sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees
meraki - (Greek) adj. pouring yourself wholeheartedly into something, and doing so with soul, creativity, and love (This definition sounds like a noun or verb to me, so it’s unclear to me how the word would get used in a sentence as an adjective. Too bad, because it’s a concept that is very near and dear to my heart. If I could figure out how to adopt this word into English properly, I certainly would!)
And that brings me to the wonderful thing about English: that we can tingo our neighbors’ vocabularies! Of course, it isn’t really stealing, because they can keep their words, too, so if you ever come across a word you think English needs, help yourself. English does it all the time, from raccoon and sushi, words that were untranslatable because English speakers didn’t have the things they refer to, to déja vu and chutzpah, words that seemed pithier or more evocative than our own homegrown ways of expressing the concepts. So next time you’re admiring the beauty of the komorebi (it’ll be a while ’til we have any leaves here!) go ahead and call it by name!