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Calm • Perspective

Untranslatable Words

There are lots of moods, needs and feelings that our own language has not yet properly pinned down. The perfect word – even if it comes from abroad – can help us to explain ourselves to other people – and its existence quietly reassures us (and everyone else) that a state of mind is not really rare, just rarely spoken of. The right word brings dignity to our troubles, and helps us identify more accurately what we really like or find annoying. Here are some favourites among the world’s untranslatable words:



1. Forelsket (Norwegian): the euphoric feeling at the beginning of love. We can’t believe someone so perfect has wandered into our lives. They enhance and complete us. We might report: ‘I was overpowered by forelsket as our fingers enlaced…’

2. Jayus (Indonesian): a lame joke that nonetheless elicits good natured amusement – rather than irritation – at its sheer innocent silliness. The ability to treat an idiotic remark as a Jayus is a sign wisdom and kindness; evidence that we can accept that our minds are low as well as high.

3. Saudade (Portuguese): a bitter-sweet melancholic yearning for something beautiful that is now gone: perhaps a love affair, a childhood home, a flourishing business. There is pain yet also a pleasure that such loveliness once graced our lives.


4. Torschlusspanik (German): Literally: Gate-closing-panic. The anxious, claustrophobic feeling that opportunities and options are shutting down; you have missed the boat, you have to get a grip, you are getting too old.

5. Eudaimonia (Ancient Greek): often translated as ‘happiness’, it really means the deepest kind of fulfilment, often comprising a flourishing work and love life. It’s accepted that eudaimonia can go hand in hand with lots of day-to-day frustration and pain. You could be correctly described as possessing eudaimonia even though you were periodically really rather grumpy.

6. L’esprit d’escalier (French): the witty or cutting retort that we should have delivered to a frenemy but that comes to mind only after we’ve left the gathering and are on our way down the stairs. Captures our maddening inability to know how to answer humiliation in real time.


7. Schadenfreude (German): the satisfaction we find in another person’s failure or suffering. The source of the pleasure (which in polite circles we are supposed to find shameful) is at heart simply relief (rather than nastiness): that another person has been shown to be, like oneself, inadequate and unfortunate.

8. Litost (Czech): the humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishment, of everything that has gone wrong in our lives. They casually allude to a luxurious house they are renting for the holidays. They mention the glamorous friends they have had for dinner. We feel searing self-pity at the scale of our inadequacies.

9. Hüzün (Turkish): the gloomy feeling that things are in decline and that the situation – often political in nature – will probably get gradually worse. Despite the darkness, there’s a joy in having the word to hand, sparing us from a personal sense of persecution and reminding us that our misfortunes are largely collective in nature.


10. Querencia (Spanish): Describes a place where we feel safe, a ‘home’ (which doesn’t literally have to be where we live) from which we draw our strength and inspiration. In bullfighting, a bull may stake out a querencia in a part of the ring where he will gather his energies before another charge.

11. Mono no aware (Japanese): an acute sensitivity to the transience of lovely things; a melancholy awareness that everything nice will fade combined with a rich enjoyment of this short-lived beauty. The sight of cherry blossom provokes the emotion like nothing else.


12. Dustsceawung (Old English): contemplation of the fact that dust used to be other things – the walls of a city, the chief of the guards, a book, a great tree: dust is always the ultimate destination. Such contemplation may loosen the grip of our worldly desires.

13. Vade Mecum (Latin): Literally translated as ‘go with me.’ Used in reference to a book that – like a friend – is a wise, helpful and constant guide through life. To be a vade mecum is the ideal to which all literature aspires. Marcus Aurelius’s wise and consoling Meditations, written c. 180 AD, are an ideal vade mecum.

14. Yūgen (Japanese): gives a name to a mood in which one feels that the universe as a whole possesses a mysterious, elusive, but real, beauty. Moonlight, snow on distant mountains, birds flying very high in the evening sky and watching the sun rise over the ocean all feed this sensibility.


15. Toska (Russian): a refined, elevated and appalling kind of boredom. One is bored not by lack of appealing stimulants but by the very things that are supposed to be interesting: creativity, wit, intelligence, history, the universe. In its religious sense, one is bored by God. Nowadays, we might say – with far less dignity and resonance – that we are depressed.

16. Fika (Swedish): a traditional break from work usually involving a drink of coffee or tea. In Swedish offices, you are strongly expected to take a fika, no matter how busy you are. You should not discuss business matters, but chat pleasantly with your colleagues and get to know those above and below you in the official pecking order. It’s democracy and community in a beverage.



17. Mokita (Kivila): a painful fact everyone is aware of, but which – out of compassion – no-one mentions (perhaps someone has been unfaithful, or is bankrupt or has lost their job). The ability of a group to manage Mokita is deeply admired.

18. Iktsuarpok (Inuit): a feeling of edgy anticipation that makes one keep on looking out the window to see if an expected visitor is coming up the path.

19. Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan) A meaningful look exchanged between two people who want to kiss but are both worried about about being rebuffed.


20. Age-otori (Japanese): The feeling of looking worse after a haircut. Captures how hard it is for our plans to come off well.

21. Friolero (Spanish): having a special sensitivity to cold. Being friolero doesn’t imply criticism. It’s like being left-handed or lactose intolerant: just a fact about you. The word is affectionate, some of one’s favourite people might be especially friolero – and therefore in special need of blankets and hugs.



22. Ataraxia (ancient Greek): a state of calm that all Stoic philosophers aspired to. It’s a lack of agitation that comes from understanding the ways of the universe, accepting fate, knowing what one can control and therefore focusing only on the things one can actually change. Very useful when the taxi is late.

23. Wabi-Sabi (Japanese): the quality of being attractive because of being imperfect in some way. Instead of getting annoyed and upset by imperfections, which are experienced as spoiling something, wabi-sabi suggests that we should see the flaw itself as being part of what is charming. Can apply to pots, furniture, houses – and whole lives.

24. Hiraeth (Welsh): the longing to go back to a place that has been so changed in our memory that it cannot really be said to exist outside our imaginations. A coded warning not to call up the ex or revisit the childhood hotel.


25. Verschlimmbessern (German): To accidentally make something worse in the process of attempting to mend or improve it. Multiple applications around computers, cake baking and relationships.

26. Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese): The act of running one’s fingers, gently but deeply, through someone else’s hair.

27. Ya’aburnee (Arabic): The desire to die before another person, because of how unbearable it would be to learn of their death. A sense frequently experienced around one’s children.


28. Tartle (Scottish): A moment of hesitation that occurs when you forget someone’s name. The word presents this experience as widespread and acceptable rather than awkward. It combats our tendency to treat innocent, temporary mental blankness as a personal affront.

29. Dapjeongneo (Korean): the situation when someone has asked you a question and they think they know exactly what you are going to say – and they are now waiting for you to say precisely what they expect you to say. But you might not. Only a society of exquisitely nuanced manners would have had the sensitivity to coin such a term.


30. Gökotta (Swedish): To wake up early in the morning with the specific purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing. It confers approving societal attention on a highly enriching activity we have almost certainly been neglecting of late.

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