Updated: Nov 6
Language is like a mirror for culture, reflecting all the nuances and quirks that make each society unique. Interestingly (and maybe tellingly), many languages boast words that perfectly capture ideas or experiences for which there is no literal equivalent in English. You might have heard of "schadenfreude" (the delight in someone else's misfortune), which is a probably the most well-known example, but there are countless other, more positive specimens worthy of our attention.
Many languages have single words that are broadly recognised in their own vernacular to convey ideas or concepts that in English require clunky phrases to express the same meaning. Perhaps it is the British “stiff upper lip” stoicism that explains the lack of English words to describe some scenarios and their attendant human feelings―most of the words I share below have that vibe! As professional writer, I've encountered a few examples of these un-translatable words that have never had English equivalents. I’m sure there’s a word for them somewhere, just not in the Oxford English Dictionary. ;)
Please enjoy some of my favourites:
1. Arbejdsglæde (Danish)
Arbejdsglæde is more than just job satisfaction; it's a deep sense of happiness and fulfillment that transcends the mundane. When you experience Arbejdsglæde, work is no longer a chore but a joy. Instead of dragging yourself out of bed on Mondays, you'll be eager to tackle the day ahead. It's an empowering feeling that invigorates and inspires you to achieve great things. The fact that Scandi countries rank highest in the Human Development Index, which considers the well-being of a nation's citizens, shows that Arbejdsglæde is more than just a fancy word, it’s a way of thinking about why we do what we do for work, and how getting it right really matters.
2. Saudade (Portuguese)
Saudade is a complex emotion that captures the feeling of longing for something or someone who may never return. It's a mix of nostalgia, melancholy, love and hope all rolled into one. The word originated from the Portuguese Age of Discovery when sailors left their loved ones for long periods, not knowing if they would ever come back. Saudade cannot be translated directly into English, making it a unique word that should be added to the language lexicon.
3. Waldeinsamkeit (German)
Waldeinsamkeit is a German word that effortlessly sums up the sensation of being one with nature while wandering through the woods. It's the perfect term to describe the peace and tranquility that comes with being alone in the great outdoors. The Germans have always had a profound admiration for nature, and Waldeinsamkeit is a prime example of their reverence for it.
4. Kilig (Tagalog)
Kilig, a Tagalog word, perfectly encapsulates that heart-fluttering sensation we get when we're smitten. It's the feeling we've all had, yet never had a proper term for. Kilig is a unique word that deserves a spot in the English language as it brilliantly captures the thrill and euphoria of falling head over heels. And let's be honest, if there's one concept that deserves it’s own description, it's falling in love.
5. Duende (Spanish)
Let me introduce you to Duende, a Spanish word that describes the inexplicable ability of a piece of art to stir one's innermost emotions. Though typically associated with flamenco, this term can be applied to any artistic expression that leaves a profound impact on its audience. It's a shame that there isn't an equivalent word in English, as Duende perfectly encapsulates the idea that art has the power to touch our very souls.
6. Toska (Russian)
Toska, my dear reader, is a term coined by the Russians to depict a profound spiritual agony that hits you out of the blue. It's like a dull pain that lingers in your soul, a feeling of yearning with no apparent reason, but not describing clinical depression: more an idea of longing, but not knowing what you’re longing for. Frankly speaking, we English speakers could use a term like this to describe that inexplicable ache in our hearts. Toska is that unique word that hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing that deep-seated, confusing pain that's hard to put into words.
7. Sobremesa (Spanish)
Another personal favourite. Sobremesa, a beautiful Spanish term, refers to the delightful time we spend lingering at the table after a meal, conversing and unwinding with our fam or friends. This word is so unique that it's almost unfair that it hasn't found its place in the English language yet. It perfectly encapsulates the essence of relishing the company of loved ones over good food.
8. Sprezzatura (Italian)
Sprezzatura is an Italian word that describes an effortless, nonchalant, leisurely masterfulness. It is a word that perfectly captures the Italian way of life, where everything is done with ease and elegance. Sprezzatura is a word that should exist in English as it captures the idea of doing things with a carefree attitude, although I recommend a sprinkle of caution with this one – I’ve been on too many Italian trains.
9. Jamani (Swahili)
Jamani is a Tanzanian expression that can convey a plethora of emotions ranging from empathy to shock and a lot else. It's one of those versatile words that's tricky to translate. Frankly, it's a pity that such a term doesn't exist in English. Jamani allows you to express a gamut of emotions in one word, for those days when you’re laugh-crying and can’t work out why.
10. Wabi-Sabi (Japanese)
Wabi-Sabi, a term from the land of the rising sun, is all about embracing the transient and flawed beauty of the world. It's the backbone of Kintsugi, the Japanese craft of mending shattered items with gold lacquer. Trust me, this word is so exceptional that it deserves an English translation to appreciate the concept that flaws can be fascinating, and imperfection can be beautiful. In an insta-fed world of constructed perfection, this one might just top my list.
As a word nerd, I believe a lot can be learned in exploring diverse languages. They offer the opportunity to encapsulate ideas and experiences that we might be incapable of articulating in our own tongue, without resorting to four-letter words or awkward clunky attempts at expressing complex concepts.
- Ali H
P.S. Comments enabled on this one - love to hear your contributions!