Words That Don’t Have An English Equivalent

This post is the result of the work of my Theory of Knowledge classes at the Overseas Family School. The idea here is that we want to pull into the English language some of the richness of other languages. Other languages have words that simply do not translate easily into English. These are sometimes called “untranslatable” words, but of course any word can be translated. More accurately they are words that don’t have equivalents in other languages.

Often these words show us something unique or special about a culture –they might have a word for something that people in other cultures may have never thought about. Some students also think that to fully understand these words you need to understand the culture or how people think about things a little differently in that part of the world.

Please share words that you know in your language (in the comments below), that we should (or could) start using in English. Don’t forget to provide an example. 

Unique Words from Foreign Languages

Urdu

Aap – This means ‘you’ but it is used to address someone with respect.

Danish

Hygge – When you are with friends and you light a candle or put a fire on and everyone is very congenial with each other. When no one debates things, but you just enjoy each others’ company.  

Dutch

Gezellig (HKA – zel – ah) – When you’re feeling really good with a group of friends. Guili Castillo Oriard describes “Gezellig this way, “Literally [it] means nice, cozy. But it’s also used for something that’s fun, or for good times. It implies belonging, togetherness, in ways that are much more than just fun. It also conveys a certain quaintness–sometimes” (Source). More on this word.

Russian

Katchok – Means the person is really really buff like a bull, and you know that he knows how to fight well.

Hebrew

Neshama – It a word that is adding to a sentence. and its giving kind of compliment. You usually say it at the beginning of the sentence. It usually used for talking to friends.

French

Souriante- when a person has the personality or characteristic of always smiling.

L’appel du vide- the urge to jump of high surroundings. The call of the empty.

“N’importe quoi”, sometimes abbreviated “nimp”, is extremely common, and it can mean something like “nonsense” (stop saying nonsense – arrête de dire n’importe quoi), but it can also mean something like “random” (woah this video is sooo random – c’est n’importe quoi cette video), etc. Litterally, it means something like “anything” (or more precisely “it doesn’t matter what”), and in practice, you can sometimes translate it as “anything” (je veux bien faire n’importe quoi sauf ça – I’m okay with doing anything except that). (Source: Reddit)

German

Fernweh – the opposite of homesick: the desire to be far away. (Source: Reddit)

Hindi

Ji – A word used after the name of a person (such as your mother, father or grandparents) to emphasize or indicate respect for the subject. It’s not like saying sir or madame, and is a lot more personal or heartfelt. Usually used for someone superior to you.

चुगलक्होर(chu-gal-khor)-This word usually refers to the people who cannot be trusted.For e.g., If we tell a secret to our friend and he goes and gossips about it with other people, we call him a ‘chugalkhor’/someone who rats out your secrets to other people.It is used as a negative connotation.

चाय – पानी(chai-pani)-This word literally means tea-water but it actually means some kind of bribe usually in the form of money or some special favours.For e.g,if a corrupt govt. official wants you to pay bribe he says ‘कुछ  चाय – पानी’- ‘some chai-pani please/ some bribe is needed to get the work done’.-Chehak

Italian

Ti Voglio Bene – something like I love you, but it’s what you say to your mom or your family. It’s more like I appreciate you. (Thx, Leonardo Boscardi)

Ciao – It means hello, goodbye, yes, no, maybe, night, day, cool, hot, pasta, turkey etc. all at once.

Ojibwe

Wiin- non-gender specific 2nd person pronoun. Basically he/she.

Korean

쾌변 (Kwe-byun), which literally means something like refreshing bowl-movement. It’s a very polite, professional way of saying it. Almost medical (you can even say it on official documents). It’s thought to be a sign of good health in Korea (well really everywhere right?)

답답하다 (dap dap ha da) – when a person feels ‘suffocated’ as they can’t express their emotions properly or they don’t understand what the other person is trying to say. It’s used when you’re irritated and feeling restless about the situation or a person.

For e.g, when talking to a friend over the phone and she/he can’t hear you properly or doesn’t understand what you’re asking. You say, “I am 답답하다”. – Jennifer Kang Ji Yoon

독하다 (dok ha da) – The word literally means ‘poison’ but it’s different when defining a person to be ‘독하다’. It could be positive or negative. In positive situations, for instance, if someone is good at enduring pains, we could say “He is 독하다”. – “He is tough”/ having a lot of patience. In general, it is expressed as being ‘the worst’ or ‘the best’ depending on a situation. – Jennifer Kang Ji Yoon

Spanish

Caliente – This Spanish word means “hot” in terms of temperature. English doesn’t have a word to distinguish between food that is hot temperature-wise from spicy-hot food, while Picante is the word for food which is hot in terms of spicy.

Thai

เกรงใจ (Kreng-Jai) – A feeling when a person is not doing something they actually want because it might affect another person’s feeling negatively. For example, I wanted to go to the mall but my mom just came back from work so I feel เกรงใจ (Kreng-Jai), because I don’t want to bother my mom because she’s probably tired from work. – Knight

Japanese

Umami (うま味)- a type of flavour/taste

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9 Responses to Words That Don’t Have An English Equivalent

  1. Tim Woods says:

    Thanks. I’ll fix that! 🙂

  2. Pedro says:

    In Portuguese there is the word “saudade”. It is a personal feelng of longing for someone or something. Sometimes “I have saudades of you” it could be translated as “I miss you”, but other times it might include some element of sadness mixed with a positive celebration of the love that caused the longing. In this sense I think it has something in common with the american “blues”, which are basically a negative feeling but seems to include a celebration, a joy of having them and singing them.

    You could also investigate the spanish “duende”, you’ll find a nice text (by Nick Cave!) explaining it.

  3. Marie says:

    Might be a tad late, however I thought calor was the Spanish word which meant the temperature was hot, and caliente meant that, i.e. food was hot, or could be used to say that someone is aroused. Thus, “Hace calor” – “The weather is hot” and “Estoy caliente” – either “my body is hot” or “I’m sexually aroused”, guess you’ll just have to guess!!

  4. femke kleine Staarman says:

    Dutch Femke
    – Beleg – It is a word to have a general view for food that you might add on your bread
    for example we have different words for ham or cream-cheese but these are toppings to your bread
    therefore it goes under the word : Beleg

  5. Nehci says:

    Bliat is actually a swear word in Russian, i don’t think it is appropriate for it to be there, but of course it’s up to you. The actual meaning may be described as it is in the list, but more frequently it is used as a sign of an extreme disappointment or excitement. The English equivalent will be an F word… Though it made me laugh seeing it there, as well as Katchok, which is OK, but it may be taken as an insult by the bulky kind, as sometimes it also implies being stupid. And yet it’s very informal.

  6. Tanisha says:

    अनमोल(Anmol) – Refers to something priceless and unique, something that cannot be replaced easily. For instance the Taj Mahal is described to be अनमोल(Anmol), as it is one of a kind.

  7. Arabelle says:

    French
    L’esprit de l’escalier (directly translated to the spirit of the staircase)

    The feeling you get after leaving a conversation and think of all the things you could have said.

    It comes from a philosopher Denis Deriot’s description of such a situation. He thought of this when a remark was made to him which left him speechless at the time but he explained “l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier” traslated to “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs”)

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