Untranslatable Words from Around the World

Sometimes, no matter how hard we search the English dictionary, we can’t find just the right words to say what we mean – so, we borrow shamelessly from other languages.

After all, why make up new English words when we can simply steal from languages around the world?

To help you find just the right words to express your thoughts and feelings, we’re offering this smörgåsbord of foreign terms that you might consider sampling in times of linguistic need. Wherever possible, we’ve included a link to the native pronunciation.

What are untranslatable words?

When we describe a word as “untranslatable,” it doesn’t mean that we can’t express its meaning in English at all. “Untranslatable” simply means that there’s no direct English equivalent for the foreign term.

Take, for example, Schadenfreude. This German word combines Schaden (“harm” or “damage”) and Freude (“joy,” “delight,” or “pleasure”) to describe the joy one takes in another’s misfortune. While we’ve likely all experienced this feeling – whether we care to admit it or not – we’d be hard-pressed to find a single English word that conveys the same meaning.

For this reason, so-called “untranslatable” words often wind up becoming loanwords in English.

Some of the words in our list are already well-known loanwords in English. Others may be new to you. All of them can help you express yourself in a satisfying way.

Untranslatable words for feelings and emotions

We’ve all struggled to communicate our emotions clearly. That’s why we have these words from around the world to help us.

Joy, love, and relationships

Aspaldiko – Basque (Euskara)

From the Pyrenees, on the border between Spain and France, comes a word for the joy one feels when catching up with an old friend after a long absence.

The French word retrouvailles (literally, “refindings”) expresses a similar bliss found in a sweet reunion.

Любоваться – Russian

Deriving from любить, the Russian verb meaning “to love,” любоваться is that warm, fuzzy, starstruck feeling you get when you’re in the presence of someone or something that – as they used to say back in the 1950s – is just so dreamy.

For instance, when you realize how quickly you can learn Russian online, you’ll feel a strong sense of любоваться… and you’ll be able to express it more eloquently than ever.

विरह (viraha) –

Hindi/Marathi

This word is the driving force behind many a romantic comedy, such as My Best Friend’s Wedding. It’s the regret you feel when you realize that your ex was actually your one true love.

Attaccabottoni – Italian

When you study the Italian language, you’ll find many rhythmic, musical, and expressive words such as attaccabottoni.

An attaccabottoni is the type of person with whom you may have an involuntary relationship, probably in the workplace. A compound word formed from attaccare (to attach) and bottoni (buttons), this clingy person will endlessly regale you with pointless tales that recount every last detail of their life.

The closest English-language equivalent would probably be an “energy vampire.”

見外 (jiànwài) – Mandarin Chinese

An attaccabottoni presumes a non-existent closeness and intimacy. Almost exactly opposite to this is 見外 (jiànwài, simplified as 见外).

Jiànwài is a Mandarin verb indicating that a close friend or associate is being treated with undue politeness, creating an artificial distance in the relationship.

English comes closest to this by saying that someone is standing on ceremony, giving a cold shoulder, or simply being “frosty.”

Humor

Jayus – Indonesian

Cringe-worthy humor can sometimes be so bad that it’s good. Think about your favorite “dad joke,” or that joke we had in freshman biology: “What does Mil do?” – “He parties. He’s a fun guy.”

That’s jayus. If you like bad puns, you won’t necessarily think this term is an insult.

Elmosolyodni – Hungarian

When you hear a jayus joke, you might feel your lips twitching into elmosolyodni. This is a special smile reserved for bad jokes and inappropriate humor, or anytime you feel overcome by strong emotions and smile despite yourself.

Untranslatable Words: Saudade

Photo by ArtHouse Studio

Sadness and loneliness

Weltschmerz – German

Satirist Jean Paul, originally known as Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, came up with this word that literally means “world pain.”

When you feel that the world is in a deplorable state, Weltschmerz can describe your anguish. Lisa Simpson, in all her angst, would be the cartoon poster child for Weltschmerz.

Saudade – Portuguese

Sometimes given as saudades, this is a Portuguese word that embodies a heart-wrenching feeling of longing and nostalgia for something or someone that’s no longer in your life. It can be a person or a place that’s absent, perhaps forever.

It’s a bittersweet feeling of sad remembrance. In a single word, it echoes the wistfulness in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous lines, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”

To discover more unique ways that the people of Portugal and Brazil describe their world and their emotions, consider learning Portuguese online.

Tech terms

Many tech terms, such as “hashtag” and “modem,” have spread from their English-language origins into other languages across the world. In turn, English has borrowed technological terms from a few other languages.

Two of these terms are used for self-expression in online communications.

絵文字 (emoji) – Japanese

Although emoji sounds a lot like the related term emoticon, it actually comes from a combination of the Japanese words for “picture” and “character.”

You might remember emoticons as the original “smileys.” Each emoticon combines several different characters intended to be viewed sideways, such as :-) representing a smile.

By contrast, emoji are the tiny icons on a virtual keyboard that symbolize everything from facial expressions and emotions to flags, animals, and household objects.

Avatar – Sanskrit

Whether it’s a cartoon drawing of your likeness, your “spirit animal,” or some other symbol, the image that represents you online is an avatar. The Sanskrit word अवतार (avatāra) came to English almost 250 years ago, via Hindustani अवतार (avtār, also rendered اوتار‎).

It came into pop culture through several 1980s role-playing games, featured prominently in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk tome Snow Crash, and is now the name of a James Cameron film franchise.

Untranslatable Words: Entarter

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Words describing food, drink, and good times

Whether we get together online or in person, we can use these words to talk about our shared experiences.

먹방 (mukbang) – Korean

Sometimes spelled meokbang, this is a hugely popular type of social media event in which a host chows down while presenting their livestream topic. 먹방 brings together two Korean words: 먹는 (meongneun, or “eating”) and 방송 (bangsong, or “broadcast”).

A mukbang often involves the preparation of a meal, which is then eaten on camera by the host. Since eating has historically been a communal activity, researchers such as Kyae Hyung Kim, EunKyo Kang, Jihye Lee, and Young Ho Yun postulate that a mukbang gives viewers the vicarious satisfaction of feeling that they’ve shared a meal with someone.

Entarter – French

This verb is used by French speakers for the act of throwing a pie in someone’s face. The celebrated Belgian entarteur (pie-thrower) Noël Godin targeted Bill Gates with a tarte classique (whipped-cream pie) in 1998.

When you improve your French online with personalized courses that teach you how to speak like a native, you’re less likely to become an entarté(e) (pie target).

Craic – Irish

While this word is famously Irish for a fabulously good time of conversation, relaxation, and mad fun, it actually came to Irish from the Middle English crack, which meant “bragging talk” or “loud conversation.”

If “the craic was mighty” last night at the pub, that means you had a truly wonderful time.

Καιρός – Greek

Speaking of time, we have καιρός (kairós), which can be thought of as the perfect, most opportune time for something to happen – whether it’s a great meal, a pint with friends, or a pie in the face.

Words for habits and home

For bibliophiles, seekers of coziness, or those who appreciate really good upholstery, these words go to the heart of our home life.

積読 (tsundoku) – Japanese

Not to be confused with “sudoku,” the name of the popular number puzzle, tsundoku is a Japanese word that literally means “to pile up reading.”

Do you have growing stacks of future reads by your bedside? You are likely a practitioner of tsundoku.

Sturmfrei – German

If you share your living quarters, you can’t always behave exactly as you’d like. But, when everyone else is out of the house, you’re finally free to crank up the stereo or binge-watch your guilty pleasure shows.

That’s when you experience a completely sturmfrei (“storm free”) state of kicking back and relaxing.

You can even use your sturmfrei time to eat your Studentenfutter (trail mix) right out of the bag as you learn more German words with daily online practice.

Don’t worry – we promise we won’t tell your Mitbewohner (roommates).

Friolero – Spanish

Are you someone who’s always bundling up in multiple layers, regardless of the season? Do you find yourself sneaking off to adjust the thermostat? If so, your friends might say that you’re a friolero – or friolera, if you’re a lady.

In some parts of South America, you might be called friolento or friolenta (and your French-speaking friends might use a similar word, frileux, which can mean both “sensitive to cold” and “cautious about change”).

It doesn’t matter if you prefer friolento or friolero. To get hot on the trail of more useful Spanish expressions, you can study Spanish vocabulary online and learn new words fast.

Hyppytyynytyydytys – Finnish

If Tigger of Winnie-the-Pooh fame spoke Finnish, this is just the sort of word he’d devise. It literally means “bouncy cushion satisfaction.”

The next time you sit in a chair with a particularly resilient cushion, think of this word.

Filling in the gaps with “untranslatable” words

Whenever you’re struggling to find le mot juste (the exact right word for a particular situation or circumstance), consider borrowing one of these beautiful, untranslatable words from around the world.

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