Unique Words That Can’t Be Translated Into English

Have you ever wished you had a word which means “the day before yesterday?” Well, English might let you down, but Spanish has you covered. As Spanish Pod 101 explains, the Spanish word for “the day before yesterday” is “anteayer.”

But “anteayer” is just a basic example. As it turns out, there are lots of words from other languages that lack English equivalents. Some of these words — like “treppenwitz” — are humorously specific. Others — like “ya’aburnee” — are burning with passion. All of them are curiously unique.

As ScienceDirect reports, the psychologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf once theorized that the languages shape how reality is interpreted. Does this mean that our understanding of reality can be expanded by learning new words that don’t exist in our original language? Maybe… but maybe not. Either way, here are some of the most fascinating words from around the globe that don’t exist in English.

From Portuguese: Saudade

One particularly beautiful untranslatable word is the Portuguese notion of “saudade.” As NPR explains, saudade is a hard word to define. It can be described as “a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened,” or, more poetically, “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” More concretely, saudade is used to describe a feeling of longing for someone or something that is missing from your life — someone or something you might never see again. If you’ve ever been in a long-distance relationship, you likely know the feeling of saudade firsthand. Due to the unique beauty of the word, NPR reports that saudade is “a common fixture in the literature and music of Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and beyond.”

But saudade isn’t the only word which describes a unique form of longing. According to Unbabel, the Welsh word “hiraeth” refers to “the feeling of longing for a home to which you can never return, which perhaps never even existed in the first place.” Hiraeth is a deep nostalgia for times and places which are long gone. Even more broadly, per EF.edu, the Russian word “toska” describes “a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without a specific cause; a longing with nothing to long for.” Toska might be the most tragic emotion of them all — it’s a feeling of longing that can never be satisfied.

From Chinese: Jiàn wài

The Chinese language is full of unique words related to respect. The Culture Trip, for example, reports that “qīng ​tīng” is a Chinese term which means “to listen attentively and/or respectfully.” Similarly, “xiào​ shùn” refers to the specific type of obedience that children ought to show to their parents. But what should you say when someone is being too respectful?

In English, there isn’t a perfect term for this. But Chinese has one. According to Chinese Class 101, “jiàn wài” is a Chinese term that means “being too polite just like an outsider would be.” While being respected is great, you’ve probably experienced a moment where a friend is acting overly polite to the point of seeming distant. In China, you can tell that friend to stop being so jiàn wài.

Of course, while acting overly polite can make you seem more like a stranger than a friend, respect does remain an important value in most world cultures. According to The Guardian, the untranslatable Persian word “Ta’arof” refers to an entire system of etiquette that governs social interactions in Iran — from insisting that others enter a building first to inviting your friends over for lunch while simultaneously hoping they’ll decline. Similarly, per Baselang, the Thai word “greng-jai” is the feeling of not wanting to inconvenience your friends by asking for their help.

From German: Treppenwitz

If you know even a tiny bit of German, you’re probably aware that the language is full of uniquely specific words — often formed by combining simpler words into one. One particularly notable example is “treppenwitz.” According to DW.com, treppenwitz literally translates to “staircase joke.” But, specifically, treppenwitz refers to those bittersweet moments where you come up with the perfect comeback, joke, or pick up line hours after you actually needed it. In the moment, you were too anxious to say anything clever. It’s not until you were climbing the stairs on the way out that the ideal response popped into your head (hence “staircase joke”). In English, there’s the less-catchy (and more broad) notion of the “shower thought.”

There are plenty of other humorously specific unique German words. According to Babbel, “kopfkino” literally translates to “head cinema” and describes the act of vividly picturing a future scenario in your head (along with all the ways that scenario could go horribly wrong). Additionally, “schnapsidee” describes an idea so crazy that it “could have been, and perhaps was, fueled by an influential quantity of strong alcohol.” Finally, according to FluentU, “backpfeifengesicht” is a German word describing a particularly slappable face, like the one possessed by your annoying coworker.

Clearly, English speakers are missing out on the vividly specific compound nouns offered by the German language.

From Catalan: Somiatruites

Everyone has that one friend who’s constantly daydreaming about the future — even when their future plans are quite clearly impossible, like their intention to travel to Mars or marry into royalty. But how do you describe such a person? English has some options but none that fit flawlessly. But Catalan — a language spoken primarily in eastern Spain — offers the perfect word — “somiatruites.” According to Spanish Pod 101, somiatruites refers to “a person who gets overly excited over anything, even if it’s impossible.”

Somiatruites is a useful word, no doubt, but there’s an odd twist — the literal translation is “omelette dreamer.” Why does “omelette dreamer” refer to an overly excitable, future-focused person? Unfortunately, your guess is as good as ours.

But Catalan isn’t the only language with a word like this. According to TheLocal.de, the German word “luftschloss” has a very similar meaning. Luftschloss literally translates to “air castle,” but it actually refers to a fantasy or unrealistic dream (as well as the person with that dream). Per TheLocal.de, the English phrases “delusion of grandeur” and “pipe dream” have a similar meaning — but these phrases carry a more negative connotation, while luftschloss “embraces the beauty of imagination.”

From Norwegian: Forelsket

In English, “love” is a versatile word. You can love your mother, love your spouse, and love food. In each statement, “love” carries a different meaning. While some might prefer the simplicity of the English-language approach, other languages have decided to split the concept of “love” into many different words. One example is the Norwegian word “forelsket.” According to EF.edu, forelsket refers to “the euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love.” The butterflies, the confusion, the passion — all are encompassed in the notion of forelsket. English speakers, on the other hand, have no one-word way to describe the emotions they felt after their first kiss.

As it turns out, many languages have better love-related vocabularies than English does. Per LifeHack.org, for example, the Portuguese verb “apaixonar” refers to “the act of falling in love” — a term that surprisingly lacks an English equivalent. Tagalog — a language spoken in the Philippines — gets even more precise. Per EF.edu, “kilig” (a Tagalog word) refers specifically to “the feeling of butterflies in your stomach, usually when something romantic takes place.” For a final emotional example, consider “iktsuarpok.” According to BK Connection, iktsuarpok is an Inuit word which refers to the feeling of anticipation as you wait for a loved one to arrive. Pace your room, check the window, step outside to see if they’re coming — all these actions are part of the feeling of iktsuarpok.

From Arabic: Ya'aburnee

Many of the words just described refer to the early stage of love — the awkward, childlike, passion-filled phase. But what if you want a word to describe the burning intensity of fully committed love? According to AER Translations, “ya’aburnee” is an Arabic word primarily used in the region of Syria and Lebanon. It’s literal meaning? “You bury me.” If that sounds a bit morbid, please let us explain, as ya’aburnee may turn out to be one of the most passionate words you’ve ever heard.

In Arabic-speaking countries, saying “Ya’aburnee” expresses your desire to die before the person you’re speaking to, as you’d simply be unable to go on living if they died first. Thus, the statement, “You bury me,” really means, “I cannot live without you.” That’s intense — and likely a sentiment felt once or twice in our lives. And while ya’aburnee can certainly be uttered by committed romantic lovers, AER Translations reports that the term is often used by parents speaking to their children.

Sadly, it seems that English lacks a romantic word as powerful as ya’aburnee. But, as EF.edu points out, one Winnie the Pooh quote expresses the same feeling — “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”

From French: Dépaysement

Naturally, one reason that many of us study foreign languages is to travel to other parts of the world. And, as it turns out, many languages have a rich vocabulary when it comes to the act of traveling. For example, the German word “wanderlust” — which describes a strong desire to travel the world — has been essentially adopted into English. According to FluentU, an even more specific German word is “fernweh,” which describes “the feeling of wanting to be somewhere else” and “a longing for a place that isn’t where you are right now.”

After months of home quarantine, fernweh is a particularly relatable emotion for most of us. But the French word “dépaysement” reminds us of the downsides that can come with traveling. According to EF.edu, dépaysement is “the feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country; being a foreigner.” It’s a decidedly complex emotion. While traveling can be exciting, it also requires the traveller to adjust to a new culture that can be radically different from what they’re familiar with. This alienating feeling is even more intense if you don’t speak the language of the country you’re visiting. Thus, EF.edu describes dépaysement as an intense homesickness, mixed with the feeling “that you don’t really belong.”

From Japanese: Wabi-sabi

“Wabi-sabi” is a Japanese word that describes an entire philosophical approach to life. As Medium explains, “wabi” can be defined as “rustic simplicity… with a focus on a less-is-more mentality.” “Sabi,” on the other hand, means “taking pleasure in the imperfect.” Thus, together, wabi-sabi refers to “the Japanese philosophy of accepting your imperfections and making the most of life.”

Through wabi-sabi, Japanese people acknowledge that relentlessly pursuing perfection can lead to undue stress and anxiety. That doesn’t mean you should use wabi-sabi as an excuse not to try your hardest. Instead, wabi-sabi simply asks you to understand that “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Medium adds that wabi-sabi is related to the Japanese art of “kintsugi,” where the cracks in pottery are filled in with gold lacquer. This art form highlights the pottery’s imperfection, rather than hiding them. Just like in kintsugi, people, too, should embrace the imperfections that make us unique.

A related notion to wabi-sabi is the Japanese concept of “shoganai.” According to Japan Talk, shoganai is a word that means “it can’t be helped.” It’s a mantra that urges you to accept the things in life that you cannot control.

From Spanish: Duende

If you’ve ever had a powerful reaction to a work of art, but you’ve struggled to explain what it was that moved you so much, Spanish may be able to help you out. According to EF.edu, “duende” is a Spanish word meaning “a work of art’s mysterious power to deeply move a person.” Duende is the unique property of art that gives you goosebumps or brings you to tears. The term is often used in reference to the Spanish music and dance style of flamenco, but it also applies to the emotional power of art in general. Duende can bring about both physical and mental effects and is often tied to a heightened state of awareness. (On a mostly unrelated note, a “duende” is also a goblin-like creature in Hispanic folklore.)

Just as art can produce a powerful psychological reaction, so too can nature. Per EF.edu, “waldeinsamkeit” is a unique German word that describes “the feeling of solitude and connectedness to nature when being alone in the woods.” After so much time in front of a screen, waldeinsamkeit is a feeling everyone could benefit from.

From Buli: Pelinti

Have you ever taken a big bite of food, not realizing how hot it was, then had to swirl that food around in your mouth to get it to cool off? The answer is almost certainly yes. Well, surprisingly, there’s actually a word for that action in Buli — a language spoken in part of Ghana. Per Baselang, the Buli word “pelinti” means “to move hot food around in your mouth.”

On the subject of eating, now would be a good time to mention some other food-related words that are unique to non-English languages. According to The Guardian, “sobremesa” is a Spanish word that refers to the moment — typically after lunch — that people engage in post-meal conversation. It’s a relaxing time — a time to sit back, tell stories with friends, and digest the food you just finished consuming.

But sometimes the sobremesa gets delayed because people just can’t stop eating. According to MentalFloss, Georgia — the country, not the state — has a word for moments like this. The Georgian word “shemomedjamo” describes the occasions that a meal is so delicious that people can’t bring themselves to stop eating it. Shemomedjamo literally means, “I accidentally ate the whole thing.” There’s also the German word “kummerspeck,” which — per FluentU — is “the excess weight put on by emotional overeating.” (Kummerspeck literally means “grief bacon.”)

From German: Fremdschämen

A popular English word on the internet is “cringe.” A corporation tries too hard to be relatable to kids? Cringe. A friend shares a meme that no one finds funny? Cringe. Entire movies and TV shows — like Curb Your Enthusiasm — are based on the idea of “cringe comedy.”

But, often, cringey moments aren’t funny — they’re just sad. German has the perfect word for occasions like this. According to FluentU, “fremdschämen” (literally meaning “exterior shame”) is a German word referring to “the feeling of shame when seeing someone else in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation.” You might feel fremdschämen when your friend tells an offensive joke to a crowd or when a musician you’ve never met completely bombs onstage. Life is full of moments of fremdschämen. It’s unfortunate that English lacks a word for this emotion.

According to Spanish Pod 101, the Spanish phrase “Vergüenza ajena” is much like the German “fremdschämen.” It refers to the moments “when you’re embarrassed by someone else’s actions.” And, while most bad jokes make us cringe, some are so bad that they actually make us laugh. Per Medium, Indonesians use the word “jayus” to describe humor like this — jokes “so lame and unfunny you can’t help but laugh.”

From Danish: Hygge

One of the best feelings in the world is to be wrapped up in a warm blanket while the snow falls outside. In English, the best word to describe experiences like this is “coziness.” Danish has a similar word, “hygge” — but hygge encompasses far more than just physical coziness.

According to the Hygge House, the notion of hygge plays a fairly central role in modern Danish culture. “Danes created hygge because they were trying to survive boredom, cold, dark, and sameness,” the Hygge House reports. While hygge can certainly refer to simple cozy acts like “lighting a candle and enjoying a cup of coffee,” the word generally evokes a deeper feeling of contentment. Hygge is often felt during pleasant moments with friends but also during peaceful times alone. Some might even argue that the pursuit of hygge is a lifestyle in itself.

Some of the best moments of hygge are found when a person escapes from the cold. On that note, Spanish has a unique word for people who are particularly sensitive to cold temperatures — “friolero,” per Spanish Pod 101. Furthermore, if you want a term to describe the way your teeth chatter uncontrollably in the cold, Persian has a word for you — “zhaghzhagh.” (But be warned, as The Intrepid Guide explains, zhaghzhagh also refers to the chattering of teeth caused by blind rage.)

From Yaghán: Mamihlapinatapei

Let’s end our list on a world record. In 1994, “mamihlapinatapai” was listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the “most succinct word” in the world. As Baselang explains, mamihlapinatapai is a word from Yaghan — a language spoken by the native peoples of Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina. It’s a fairly lengthy word, but, as Guinness explains, it has a much longer definition. Mamihlapinatapai is the act of two people “looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do.”

Mamihlapinatapai could refer to a romantic moment — like two people shyly staring at each other hoping the other will initiate a kiss. Or, as Baselang points out, it could refer to something more negative — like a married couple silently hoping that the other person will volunteer to take out the trash.

Mamihlapinatapai packs a whole lot of meaning into its seven syllables. No English word reaches the same level of meaning-density. Still, hopefully this list didn’t trigger an inferiority complex in any English speakers. There are plenty of uniquely beautiful English words, too.

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