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15 Untranslatable Words To Help Describe Those Indescribable Moments

By many estimates, there are more than 300,000 words in the English language. At least, unabridged dictionaries tend to include this number of entries, depending on how they define a word. (Are both run and running included? Are phrases, like pre-main sequence stars, words?)

While 300,000 is a big number, there’s a vastly larger number of experiences, emotions, and social interactions than that. Which is to say that some things in the human experience simply don’t have an English word to describe it. That’s when knowledge of another language or two (or at least a limited vocabulary from another language) can prove most useful.

These words may not have a direct translation (hence why they’re often called “untranslatable”), but they can be invaluable for getting your point across. The next time you’re at a loss for words, maybe one of these can help you out.

mamihlapinatapai

Feelings of desire can be complicated. Describing those feelings and how they’re expressed between two people can get even more complicated. That’s where the Yaghan (or Yahgan) word mamihlapinatapai comes in. The 1994 Guinness book of World Records holder for the most “succinct word,” mamihlapinatapai is the look that two people share when each wants the other person to start something they both want, but neither wants to initiate it on their own. It can also, less romantically, refer to the awkward feeling of wanting to start something meaningful but not wanting to be the first because it could be embarrassing.

The Yaghan tribe are from Tierra del Fuego, located at the southernmost tip of South America shared by Chile and Argentina. There are no languages related to Yaghan. The nomadic tribe has lived in the region for more than 10,000 years, though most of the living members speak Spanish. That makes this not only a word with no equivalent in English, but also one from a language at risk of disappearing.

aspaldiko

In the north of Spain along the French border you’ll find the Basque region and Euskara speakers. The language isn’t related to any Indo-European languages, and its history is a bit of a mystery. What’s not a mystery is how great the word aspaldiko is.

Aspaldiko is the perfect word for a reunion. It refers to the joy of catching up with someone you haven’t seen in a long time. The British have a slang word that’s close to this, yonks, which refers more to seeing someone or something for the first time in a long time. Aspaldiko, however, is more about that happy feeling of reconnecting, and you might use it as a greeting (“Aspaldiko!”) when reuniting with an old friend.

 

Do you know the history behind the simple greeting, “hello”?

cafuné

Attention all people who like to have their hair touched by a loved one: there’s a word for that. Cafuné is a Brazilian Portuguese word that means to run your fingers through someone you love’s hair. The word enters the Brazilian dialects of Portuguese from the Yoruba language spoken by people in Africa who were enslaved and taken to Brazil. Nearly 5 million people were taken from Africa to Brazil during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many who spoke Yoruba were taken to the state of Bahia and around the city of Salvador.

uitwaaien

Uitwaaien is a Dutch word that translates literally to “blow out.” It has nothing to do with getting a blowout at the salon, though. It’s a very northern concept that means to jog or walk in the wind (especially in the cold winter months) in order to invigorate yourself and relieve stress. It’s similar to how some people feel refreshed after diving into cold water, but with no need to dry off. “I skipped my morning coffee to uitwaaien,” for example.

tsundoku

Bibliophiles can sometimes get in the habit of buying so many books they don’t have the bandwidth to read them all. There’s an easier way to say that in Japanese: tsundoku. The word dates back to the 1800s and comes from bringing together the verb doku (reading) and tsumu (to pile up). Tsundoku isn’t some type of shaming word with a negative connotation about collectors who don’t read. Instead, it’s about loving books so much that you keep buying more. “The chef is known for engaging in more than a little tsundoku and has an extensive array of cookbooks.”

 

Have you encountered these Japanese words that earned the spotlight during the 2021 Olympics?

yoko meshi

It can be difficult to speak a foreign language. Even if you know the grammar and the most common usage, actually talking with native speakers can bring on nervous jitters. There’s no elegant way to talk about this feeling in English, though many travelers may find it familiar. In Japanese, the stress that comes from speaking a foreign language is called yoko meshi. “A wave of yoko meshi overcame me after ordering the baguette in France,” for example.

gigil

What do babies, puppies, and kittens all have in common besides youth? They can incite gigil. This Tagalog word describes the overwhelming feeling from seeing something cute. Tagalog is the principal language of the Philippines and Filipino/a/x people around the world. Gigil as defined is more than joy and not quite pure excitement, but somewhere in the middle of joy, excitement, and a giddy heartwarming feeling.

gluggaveður

People who live in colder locales know all too well that looking out of the window is not the best way to gauge the weather. Some days may look bright and sunny, but when you actually step outside the air is so frigid it tickles your lungs if you breathe in too deep. That’s a bit of a mouthful of an experience in English, but not in Icelandic. Gluggaveður translates to “window weather” and means the weather looks great from the window but is a nightmare once you’re outside.

 

Stay indoors and read up on these other climactic weather words you should know.

Fernweh

There’s just something about travel that can elicit feelings that can’t be found anywhere else. One of those is the deep desire to get out in the world, like wanderlust, but sometimes the feeling can be even more intense—a pain, even. That’s where the German term Fernweh comes in. It means a pain to see other places, and is thought to date back to at least 1835 and is attributed to German landscaper and adventurer Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau and his book about European and North African travel, The Penultimate Course of the World of Semilasso: Dream and Waking. In the book, Fernweh is used as the opposite of Heimweh, or homesickness.

shemomedjamo

Some people eat to live, others live to eat. If you find yourself in the latter camp, there’s a good chance you’ve been overfull yet continue on nonetheless because the flavors are simply too good to pass up. In the Georgian language, that’s known as shemomedjamo. Georgia, or the Georgian Republic, borders the Black Sea near Turkey and Armenia. But in English there’s no simple way to put into words the feeling of wanting to finish a plate (and maybe take a few extra bites from someone else’s plate) and then continue eating more. … For that, there’s shemomedjamo.

komorebi

A sunny day is often best spent in nature under the shade of a tree. The dappled light is a cooling—and aesthetic—touch that makes the mood feel just right. This light coming through makes the mantra a picture is worth a thousand words ring true. Unless you’re familiar with komorebi, in which case you only need that one word to describe it.

Komorebi is the Japanese word that refers to the light through trees. The word can be broken up into ko (tree), moreru (to leak), and bi (day or sunlight). The start of the word shows this is referring to the tree—specifically the branches and trunk. If you’re looking to describe the dappled light through the leaves, use hamorebi.

abbiocco

Those who have engaged in some shemomedjamo might feel the need for a nap after. The Italians have the word for this: abbiocco, or when you feel like you need to lie down after heavy eating and drinking.

Abbiocco technically just means when you feel tired, but in practice it’s used in the post-meal sense. It comes from the verb abbiocarsi, which means to collapse with exhaustion. When the turkey tiredness hits you after the shemomedjamo of Thanksgiving, feel free to share the word abbiocco with the table so everyone can put a word to their drowsiness.

zhaghzhagh

The body can sometimes do some uncontrollable things when cold. One of those is get the mouth chattering like one of those wind-up plastic teeth sets. Zhaghzhagh is the Persian word for when a cold person’s jaw involuntarily starts going as if they’re driving over an endlessly bumpy road. It can also mean when the same phenomenon happens due to anger. This is one to keep in your back pocket in the colder months when you’re in need of a satisfying hot chocolate to warm your body and soul.

 

English does have a great collection of unique words for body parts, though! Learn some of them now.

tartle

Not everyone can be good with names. That can lead to a brief awkward moment when you’re confronted with an introduction but find yourself hesitating while searching for the person’s name in the depths of your brain. People in many parts of the world may just call this rude and leave it at that, but in Scotland, there’s a more understanding term for this phenomenon: tartle. Tartle can refer to this specific moment as it means, more generally, “to hesitate, to be uncertain as in recognizing a person or object; to boggle, ‘as a horse does.’” If you find yourself boggled, simply apologize for your tartle rather than ramble on about how you’re great with faces but terrible with names.

karelu

Figure-fitting clothes can be a blessing at times. No one wants loose socks that fall every couple of steps, after all. That tight fit comes with a trade off: those lines they leave behind on your legs once you remove them. In the Tulu language that’s spoken primarily in southwestern India, those pressure mark lines from your clothes are called karelu.

 

Ready for a challenge? Translate your newfound knowledge of these untranslatable terms into a win on our quiz.