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There’s a running debate among translators about what word is hardest to translate. Obviously, the challenges vary from language to language, with languages that have less in common creating more elusive word to word translations. Let’s acknowledge that determining the hardest word to translate is more of a game than any sort of realistic exercise. That said, here are a few contenders that make the hypothetical list.

Jayus is an Indonesian word that conveys the awkward humor behind a joke delivered so badly that you can’t help but laugh. In English, we sarcastically say, “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.”

  • Tartle is a Scottish word for the hesitation one feels when introducing people but having forgotten someone’s name.
  • Prozvonit is a Czech word for “dropped call” but it refers to a mobile phone user who calls, lets the phone ring once then hangs up. The person who was called then dials the caller, saving the caller the cost of the call.
  • Saudade is a Portuguese word for longing for someone or something that someone has loved and lost. It is stronger than the sense of the English nostalgia. (A Spanish word, duende, is considered difficult for similar reasons. Learn the exact story, here.)
  • Cafune is a Brazilian Portuguese verb for running your fingers through someone’s hair tenderly. The Danish word Hyggelig literally translates as “cozy,” but the modern connotation has more to do with how Danes see themselves.

One of the hardest English words to translate into other tongues is gobbledygook, meaning “jargon-filled language that is difficult to read, maybe intentionally confusing.” It’s based on the onomatopoeic sound of a turkey’s gobble. Given the confusion that language learning students face when deciphering new words that would be a handy word to have available to describe what a poor translation looks like.

Can you think of any other words that would be difficult to translate into English? Let us know.

* Special thanks to Maria and Manny at Alta Language Services www.altalang.com

240 Comments

  1. Poja -  May 12, 2014 - 1:29 pm

    Some of the Albanian words that do not have an equivalent word in English are:
    Plis- a traditional white hat
    Oda- a room furnished with traditional furniture where men used to held their meetings
    Besa- to keep the promise
    Flia – a famous traditional Albanian food

    Reply
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  5. Brian -  July 6, 2013 - 9:46 pm

    In Jamaica, the expression “Lickkle more” is used when saying good bye to someone. Lickkle more literally translate to ‘little more’ in English, however the intended translation would be “goodbye”.

    http://jamaicanpatwah.com/term/Lickkle-more/1032

    Reply
  6. Cage -  March 14, 2013 - 11:36 pm

    Prozvonit is a Czech word for “dropped call”, in The UK we call this pranking.

    Reply
  7. kris -  October 12, 2012 - 4:19 am

    I can think of 2 in Hokkien(a Chinese dialect):
    “Lau Hong”(literally means “leaked air”)
    - when some food that is crispy or hard(crackers etc) as turned soft due to being exposed to moisture in air.

    “Sng”
    - the tinglish, weak, slightly painful, lethargic feeling in any body part(or whole body); for example the feeling you get after a particularly exhaustive action packed day of activity.

    Reply
  8. Maria -  September 17, 2012 - 9:26 am

    In Romanian, the Czech word “prozvonit” would simply be called “bip” (a “beep”, from the sound the phone does when you hang up).
    I see it is not a rare concept and I am quite surprised that English does not have a translation for it.

    Reply
  9. EnglishTeacher1976 -  September 12, 2012 - 4:38 am

    Great List!!! (would love to read every article, but would take me hours).

    in AFRIKAANS, “gesellig” is having company of friends and people you like very, very much; and a “gesellige aand” or literally, a “cozy evening”, is definitely a cultural attachment to Afrikaans-speaking people, or South Africans who would have embraced this kind of social gathering. And as the Danish would use Hyggelig, “gesellig” would say something about the people as well, not just the type of visitation – also, by exclusion, not just any type of person would be invited to your special “kuiertjie” (a “small visit” which entails an unplanned visit that warms your entire day or week mainly for the tone and character of the atmosphere created by those present). The sounds roll off the Afrikaans tongue, to convey the idea that “everything went very, very smoothly with absolutely no hassles”. Is there anyone who could confirm whether or not the Danish “hyggelig” and Afrikaans “gesellig” have a common root, perhaps in another language? Since Afrikaans is a West Germanic Language, there should be a link…

    I would love an English translation for these words… “extremely sociable” don’t capture the essence, and it could actually be used sarcastically… considering the English would have been more attracted to sarcastic expressions than most other language groups, this does present some translation hassles… we’re looking for a single-word translation that captures that meaning without the possibility of beig dubious or otherwisely ambiguous… what a conundrun we have with translations, EISH!

    Reply
  10. Rajesh -  August 31, 2012 - 6:48 pm

    Indian Hindi word “Jugad”has no substitution in English.Though its meaning is to make arrangements with conman sense and locally available resources

    Reply
  11. phil -  August 19, 2012 - 3:51 pm

    Yiddish has many excellent words that mean so much but have no English direct translations. Examples: mensch, chutzpah

    Reply
  12. Seth -  August 13, 2012 - 1:52 pm

    “Mag-tampo” is a Tagalog verb. It’s that feeling when you are disregarded by your own loved ones, so that they can attend to the needs/desires of another person.

    Reply
  13. Laura -  August 13, 2012 - 9:46 am

    I learned Portuguese while living in Brazil. My favorite untranslatable word was jeito (ZHAY-toh) or jeitinho (zhay-CHEE-nyoh). Jeito can mean “way,” as in the the way to do something. But if you say that a person has “jeito,” I understood it to mean that the person is clever and resourceful and maybe even quick-thinking. And to “fazer um jeitinho” maybe could be translated as “make a little fix” but that doesn’t seem to reflect the improvisational nature of the “fix” that jeitinho conveys, I think. Also, jeitinho can be used in other contexts besides fixing something.

    Reply
  14. Arani -  August 13, 2012 - 7:50 am

    The Bengali word ‘nyaka’ is impossible to translate to English, in fact, it is almost impossible to define it in Bengali, and its use is understood through listening to conversations.

    Reply
  15. Jack -  August 13, 2012 - 5:20 am

    The Welsh word, cwtch, pronounced, ‘cutch’, is a lovely word that is used to ask to a hug from a loved one, ‘Give us a cwtch.’ but it also means secret place, stash, somewhere safe. Hard to translate directly into English.

    Reply
  16. Marketing Strategist -  August 12, 2012 - 11:48 pm

    The Tamil word “Kindal” means your praise the person so much that the praise turns into a insult or teasing.
    I am not sure if there are parallel words in other languages.

    Reply
  17. kemal -  April 22, 2012 - 10:32 pm

    ‘zamazingo” is used in turkish and should be imposible to translate any other language…..i watched a 2 hour one man show based on this word….
    literally might mean ”’that thing”’ but has more to that…..

    Reply
  18. Oliver Lawrence -  April 21, 2012 - 6:43 am

    Further to an earlier comment, the Italian “far brutta figura” could be translated colloquially as “putting your foot in it”, or in more highbrow terms as “committing a faux pas”. What would people think?!

    Reply
  19. Dean -  April 4, 2012 - 7:42 pm

    Try Classical Greek with all its peculiarities…

    Reply
  20. Manny Boy -  April 1, 2012 - 12:36 am

    “Sayang” is a Filipino word that has no direct English translation.

    Reply
  21. Emma -  March 30, 2012 - 3:12 am

    lol so many comments!
    anyway, that’s a fantastic list! :D

    Reply
  22. Zach -  March 29, 2012 - 7:12 pm

    Eudaimonia, a Greek word which comes up in philosophy, particularly Aristotle’s, and which is sometimes translated as “happiness,” but has a connotation of being a much more permanent state.

    Reply
  23. Lily -  March 29, 2012 - 4:24 pm

    Coolio!

    Reply
  24. Lily -  March 29, 2012 - 4:21 pm

    ikr

    Reply
  25. Kelli -  March 29, 2012 - 4:17 pm

    Coolio!

    Reply
  26. yaarg -  March 29, 2012 - 11:15 am

    Joe: How do you mean that “deber” from Spanish is difficult to translate? I think you may be getting mixed up by the fact that in English “should” is a “modal” or “auxiliary” verb.

    As such we don’t really ever express it in the infinitive “to should” as you put it, but just as “should”. This is because it never operates by itself, but rather helps other verbs. It would be nonsensical to think of should by itself (I am shoulding, I have shoulden, I will should, Did you should?) Even when saying something like “I should” there is another implied verb, the context of which you would get earlier in the conversation. For example:

    Person 1: Do you need to go?
    Person 2: I should [go]

    Similarly you would not translate “poder” as “to can” but rather just “can” or “to be able to”.

    Reply
  27. lenini -  March 29, 2012 - 3:19 am

    This is so interesting! Here is my contribution:
    In Greek there is the word “μεράκι” (meraki) which means the zest, enthusiasm but also particular care with which someone performs a certain task, usually a manual task. It often has the additional meaning that the results are aesthetically pleasing. So for example, if you say “She cooks with meraki” it means that the food both looks good and is delicious!

    Reply
  28. Sam -  March 29, 2012 - 3:17 am

    There’s a European Portuguese equivalent for the ringing up one, it’s called a “toque”.

    I’m never really happy with the way the word “saudade” is described. It’s much more than that. And you don’t necessarily have to lose anything to have saudade. Saudade is longing.

    Reply
  29. Hamachisn't -  March 28, 2012 - 10:58 pm

    I consider the Indonesian word “lusa” to be very useful and have started incorporating it into my English speech, in hopes that its use may spread. It means “the day after tomorrow”.

    –H

    Reply
  30. Joe Liuzzi -  March 28, 2012 - 9:17 pm

    Deber – Spanish, Literally: to should.

    Reply
  31. Olivia Hortin -  March 28, 2012 - 6:13 pm

    Japanese is the hardest language ever……………..i know because i learn it trust me you do not want to learn it :)

    Reply
  32. yaarg -  March 28, 2012 - 3:23 pm

    From German: “Fressen” and “Wittern”.

    On first blush these aren’t too hard to translate, meaning “to eat” and “to smell” respectively, but there’s something deeper to them. They’re special in German in that -aside from a more metaphorical sense- they are used specifically for animals (people “essen” whereas dogs “fressen”).

    There’s a famous line from Goethe’s Faust that goes “Staub soll er fressen, und mit Lust!” (Mephistopheles talking about Faust). I think the best translation I’ve seen of this line in English is “I shall have him greedily eating the dust from my hand”. While not translating the line word for word, I think it really encapsulates the feeling of contempt from the phrase.

    Reply
  33. sean -  March 28, 2012 - 1:02 pm

    I remember reading a Scottish Gaelic word in Bill Bryson’s ‘The Mother Tongue’ which means someone who frequently turns up to visit you at home just before mealtimes, suggesting a very specific kind of ‘freeloader’. Can’t remember the word, but I found the concept very amusing.

    Reply
  34. Meghan -  March 28, 2012 - 10:34 am

    The Jamaican patois word “deh” refers to proximity- and can be used for physical or emotional proximity AND can indicate the intensity/duration of proximity. it means “here” and it also means “there.” it is a term of physical and emotional relativity.

    “weh u deh?” means “where are you?”
    “mi deh a mi yaad” means i’m at home.
    if it is doubled as “deh deh” (repitition is often used in patois for emphasis, i.e. “nyami-nyami” “ningi-ningi” etc.) it indicates that their current location is somewhat static, and they can be relied upon to be there for a considerable period of time.

    if someone says, “me an’ u nah deh” it literally means “you and i are not here/there” but is understood as “you and i are not close” or “we don’t share the same emotional space.”

    i have heard the term “deh” used similarly in west african creyol.

    cheers!

    Reply
  35. Keraunos -  March 28, 2012 - 5:42 am

    To Margaret Wolfe-Roberts the word you were looking for is ‘querencia’ which I would translate as ‘fondness’.
    The bullfighting, being a very specific Spanish cultural product has hundreds of words and expressions that have migrated to common speech, and are quite difficult to translate.
    - Hasta la bola, (literally ‘up to the ball’ meaning ‘thrust something to its very end’, referring to the ball at the end of the rapier the matador uses)
    - Hasta la bandera (L. ‘up to the flag’ M. ‘very crowdy’ usually used as ‘estaba lleno hasta la bandera’)
    - Corniveleto, Cornigacho, (and other words describing the size and shape of horns of the bulls)
    - Cambiar de tercio (L. ‘To change third’ M. ‘pass from one issue to another’)
    - Las dos orejas y el rabo (L. ‘two ears and a tail’ M. ‘success’)
    - Estar al quite (L. be ready to parry M. ‘watch out to ward someone else off from danger’).
    - Hasta el rabo, todo es toro (L. ‘To tail, it’s all bull’ M. ‘the danger/situation/chance has not finished yet’)
    - A toro pasado (L. ‘Once the bull has passed’ M. ‘when everything is over’ usually conveying the meaning that it is easy to say what when wrong once it has happened)
    - Dar la puntilla (L. ‘hew with the dagger’ M. ‘Give the final blow’)
    - Torear de salón (L. ‘living room bullfighting’ M. ‘To do something that entails danger when there is no such risk’)
    - Coger / tomar el toro por los cuernos (L. ‘grasp the bull by its horns’ M. ‘To get boldly face a challenging situation’)
    - Ver los toros desde la barrera (L. ‘See the bulls from the wall’ M ‘To criticize the performance of others in any field lacking the ability to deal with such matters’)
    - Pillarle a alguien el toro (L. ‘To get caught by the bull’ M. ‘To be late to do something’)

    I’m sorry if the translations are not outstanding, but it is easy to see the bulls from the wall.

    By the way, ‘tuerto’ is one eyed, cross-eyed is ‘bizco’.

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  36. Neil660 -  March 28, 2012 - 5:33 am

    The Chinese have a word 投井 (tou4jing4) which means “commit suicide by jumping in a well”. Guess it must have happened more than once! As for crazy English words, I’ve always liked “thingymajig” and “thingymabob”.

    Reply
  37. Ian Andersen -  March 28, 2012 - 5:02 am

    Michael wrote: “‘Hyggelig’ seems to capture something similar to the Dutch word ‘gezellig’, and may in fact have the same root (native speakers, please comment!).”

    HKSCHE2000 already showed that the Danish and Dutch (and German) words have different roots. More importantly, the Danish has strong implications of candles and duvets. Although in most people’s conception it would take two or more to ‘hygge’, it is not essential. You can do it on your own as well.

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  38. Ace-of-Stars -  March 28, 2012 - 3:28 am

    I recall decades ago learning about a Hindi word, “namaskar,” which supposedly encompasses the meaning: “The divinity in me acknowledges the divinity in you.”

    Reply
  39. Kat -  March 28, 2012 - 3:22 am

    German’s “beziehungsweise” (shortened as bzw.) is notoriously difficult to translate smoothly into English. Its function is to make a relationship between words explicit in a way that we usually just understand based on context in English.

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  40. K-da man -  March 28, 2012 - 2:07 am

    The turkish word of “Huzur” (Hoo-zoor) is one of them. Actually the word is from arabic origin and it literally means “presence”. But in Turkish it takes a whole another meaning. It’s something like inner-peace, spiced up with the happiness of living in a routine. Think of a happy family with kids by the fireplace on a snowy christmas. Huzur should be what you’re feeling :)

    Reply
  41. Bryan B -  March 27, 2012 - 11:16 pm

    เกรงใจ “Kreng jai” (multiple transliterations are possible) from Thai is a tough one to translate. It generally carries the sense of not wanting to impose, being “too polite” to do something, being considerate in attitude and action, etc. In addition to the semantic problem, the word can used as more than one part of speech depending on the context.

    An overarching issue that deals with translation is the source and target language in question. Just as it is more difficult to learn another language that is completely unrelated to your native language, translating words within language families typically makes for easier work than, say, from Hokkien to Navajo or vice versa.

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  42. Kevin -  March 27, 2012 - 8:00 pm

    The words “the” and “a/an” in English are almost impossible to translate into Japanese or Chinese dialects. I’m an English teacher in Asia and my students always have the worst trouble learning those simple, little words because they have no way to translate them or compare them to something in their own languages.

    Also, the Japanese word “ichikabachika” is difficult, I think. It means “something that is risky or dangerous but you want to try it anyway”.

    Reply
  43. Hyphen -  March 27, 2012 - 7:18 pm

    “Tsujigiri” is a Japanese word (only they would need it!) meaning “to try out a new sword on a chance passer-by”.

    I heard of this one years ago (1980′s?). These days it has its own Wikipedia entry:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsujigiri

    Reply
  44. Tara -  March 27, 2012 - 5:23 pm

    This one isn’t about translating from another language to English, but specifically about translating the word “home” from English to French. Simple translations include “maison,” “appartement,” and “chez moi,” but those don’t convey the feeling of home. I can’t think of a French word for “home” that conveys a feeling of sanctuary, rest, and peace of mind. If there is anyone out there who can think of one, I would welcome a reply.

    Reply
  45. Geirhildur -  March 27, 2012 - 3:49 pm

    One word that I know of in Icelandic is “að nenna” which has often been translated “to want to do something” or, in German, “Lust haben”. However, it is more than that, as with so many other words. It is most often used in a negative sentence, that is “I don’t want to do that” or “ég nenni ekki að gera þetta” but it is more of a thing you don’t want to do but you will still do it and you are just complaining about it.

    I’ve found that it has a cousin in Danish, ‘at gide’, but that is the only one.

    What I find most interesting is that originally, it meant simply that one didn’t want to do something, “ég nenni ekki að drepa þig” means literally ‘I don’t want to kill you’. It has, however, gained quite another meaning today and that would be that the sole purpose of this verb is to complain.

    It would be interesting to know if anyone else knows of such a word.

    Oh, and speaking of negative sentences, we also have a word in response, “jú”, which translates into “jo in Norwegian”, “doch” in German and “si” in French.

    Reply
  46. Morvan -  March 27, 2012 - 3:35 pm

    Good evening.

    Saudade – whose closer translation did be “Nostalgia”, even do not achieving same intensity and colour, is an Idiotism [or, equivalent: idiocy], like many others spoken in this article and or cited for anybody. Idiotism is a word such particular meaning in certain language can not be entirely translated inside another language.
    Funny is to listen people from Cabo Verde speaking this word: they speak it like Anglophonous people did it: they pronounce it “SODADE”; is is a question of accent, merely, not related to some problem with Cabo Verde skills on speaking Portuguese. They speak “belamente” our beautiful and common language to our peoples.

    Morvan

    Reply
  47. Greg -  March 27, 2012 - 2:08 pm

    I typed “à l’arrache” into Googletranslate and got “To removal”

    I asked for an alternate translation and got “not so sure”

    I think the alternate is more likely to be correct.

    Reply
  48. Stefanie -  March 27, 2012 - 2:04 pm

    I am not sure if the person calling him or herself “DLM” is still around to read this, but after doing some internet research, it appears “to wing it” is a fair English expression to fit the French “à l’arrache” does that seem to fit to you?

    Reply
  49. jack -  March 27, 2012 - 1:34 pm

    Gemütlich; what a wonderful word.

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  50. Jamie -  March 14, 2012 - 2:22 am

    Another word (not in the dictionary) is “noonchi”. It refers to good sense of what is happening around you. For example, if someone begins to ask personal questions to someone else he or she doesn’t know that well, and the person listening to the questions seem uncomfortable but the questioner keeps on inquiring, then the asker can be said to be “noonchi-less”.
    Read more at http://hotword.dictionary.com/translate/#lkTiQbxyzihSo22J.99

    Reply
  51. Tina -  September 25, 2011 - 12:11 am

    In Croatian, if you’re giving something to someone, to be polite, you will say ‘izvoli’ or ‘izvolite’. The closest in English is ‘Here you go’, but that can also be said in Croatian like that and is not really polite. It’s also used to give someone permission to do something. As in ‘Please, go ahead’.

    Another word is ‘molim’ ‘molim (te)’. Which can be used as ‘please’ ‘please (you). BUT, It is also used as a reply to ‘thank you’, as in ‘you’re welcome’- It has a better translation than #1, but that one word ecompasses something the English words don’t.

    I guess they’re not intranslatable, but they still don’t exist that way in English.

    Reply
  52. Andre Veys -  September 14, 2011 - 3:10 am

    I’m still learning from you, as I’m making my way to the top as well. I certainly enjoy reading all that is written on your website.Keep the tips coming. I liked it!

    Reply
  53. Eugene -  September 11, 2011 - 8:20 am

    I’d like to talk of a few Korean words…
    One is actually included in an English dictionary though I forgot what dictionary it was. The word is “hwabyung”, which is an actual illness you get from having so much stress pressed down in your life. I forgot the symptoms though…
    Another word (not in the dictionary) is “noonchi”. It refers to good sense of what is happening around you. For example, if someone begins to ask personal questions to someone else he or she doesn’t know that well, and the person listening to the questions seem uncomfortable but the questioner keeps on inquiring, then the asker can be said to be “noonchi-less”.
    “Han” is also difficult to translate. It is the biggest regret in one’s life, mixed with a twinge of sadness. It can be from the person themselves, from other people, or from society.
    “Jung” is hard as well. It is like “friendship” but more than that. The intimacy, love, and a little twinge of memory between a person and another person, place, or organization is meant by the one-syllable word.
    There are many adjectives that are difficult to be expressed in other languages as well, but that list would be endless.

    Reply
  54. Gabriel -  July 17, 2011 - 9:04 pm

    Eric mentioned they call it (Prozvonit) flashing in Ghanaian English, they also do that in Rwandan English. I think because we don’t have that practice in the States a word has not picked up, but to say that it doesn’t exist in English is a bit muzungu biased. (By the way, muzungu is a word that might be a bit difficult to translate into English, it is used all over East Africa to connote an individual who is white, Western, wealthy, or wanders around in circles.)

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  55. Marsh -  June 14, 2011 - 3:39 am

    Well there’s one more which could be mentioned. In India, people add the suffix “Jee” most of the times when they address people who they respect. It can be used after someone’s name, like “Gandhi jee”, or after a relation like “Chacha jee” (which is “Uncle” with respect). People in Rajasthan, India replace this suffix with “Saa” e.g. “Dadi saa” (Grandma with respect).
    This too is practiced in India because of its cultural relevance of respecting people who are elder to you or respecting anyone for that matter in the way of addressing them. It is not just for the sake of speaking that we use it, it also brings that sense of respect for the addressee in the speaker’s mind when referring to them in this manner.

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  56. Marsh -  June 14, 2011 - 3:08 am

    Surprised that there are very few examples from Hindi. One, which I find hard to translate in day-to-day life, is “Joothha”, the meaning of which can be ” food half eaten or tasted ” or we can say that some utensil is “joothha” if someone has eaten in that utensil and not washed it yet, or if you have eaten with ur hands and not washed them till some time. It has more of a cultural significance than anything else in a place like India where you don’t touch anything like books, clothes, beds or things of worship if your hands are “joothha” and also don’t serve food which is “joothha”. It’s kinda difficult to explain in English.

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  57. T -  June 13, 2011 - 7:24 am

    In my family, we say “Kneifer” (pronounce the ‘k’: kuh-NY-fer) to indicate that sharp, lower intestinal urgency the precedes an impending bathroom emergency–find a restroom, quick! When someone says, “Uh-oh…I’ve got the Kneifer…” everyone knows exactly what the emergency is! :-0

    In a nutshell, ANY idiom is difficult to translate because they are unique to the language.

    Reply
  58. Tina -  June 8, 2011 - 6:32 pm

    The Thai word ‘Nam Jai’
    literal meaning ‘water heart’ but it means the giving nature of a person without any expectation of anything in return. More than just giving but kind and selfless.

    Reply
  59. Varina -  May 21, 2011 - 9:36 pm

    David E:
    There’s a quote for that, one of my very favorites:
    English doesn’t just borrow words from other languages. It follows them down dark alleys, hits them over the head with old beer bottles and rummages through their pockets for loose grammar.

    Reply
  60. Margaret Wolfe-Roberts -  May 19, 2011 - 2:04 pm

    Regarding the word “convivencia” it depends but in some cases it could be described as “company.” For example, if you are inviting someone to go on a bike ride with you “para la convivencia” I think in English we would say “for the company.”

    Tocaya or tocayo is another one in Spanish, it means someone who has the same given name as someone else. Plus there’s co-cuñado or co-cuñada which is a co-brother-in-law or co-sister-in-law, which are not words we use in English, but if you think about it you can probably figure it out.

    For ¡ubícate!, if I were in the situation described at a funeral where a friend was behaving inappropriately like that, I think I’d say “Get a grip!”

    There’s another word in Spanish, and I’m trying to remember it, that describes the yearning for a particular place. In bullfighting they say the bull will always go back to a particular spot in the ring because it feels most protected there, most at home, and the word by extension is used in other contexts as well. Does anyone remember the word I’m talking about?

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  61. Jim Jones -  May 18, 2011 - 6:35 pm

    New Guinea pidgin English has a word “maski” – pronounced about as an Australian would pronounce “musky”. It means “it doesn’t matter”, “forget it”, “leave it out”, as in “maski sos” for “leave out the sauce”, but it cannot be truly conveyed without a number of English words.
    .

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  62. Alex -  May 18, 2011 - 10:52 am

    I like Tartles!

    Reply
  63. Jessica -  May 18, 2011 - 8:21 am

    I didn’t have time to read the whole thread so if I’m repeating things, I’m sorry. Some of the hardest words I have translating from Japanese are descriptive words. The beauty of the Japanese language is that you can say so much with just one word but when trying to translate it to english, you need a whole sentence.

    Some of the words that come to mind are “natsukashii” which technically translates to “nostalgic” but it doesn’t do in english just to exclaim “nostalgic!” In Japanese the one word serves as an entire sentence, but not so in English and even “nostalgic” doesn’t really convey the right meaning. I guess its similar to the Portuguese word, “Saudade”

    “Shoganai” is another one that is hard…the closest I’ve come is “There’s nothing for it” or MAYBE “bummer”

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  64. Maximonk -  May 18, 2011 - 6:44 am

    “The Hot Word” blogs are so fascinating, I think I’ll just abandon all other activities and concentrate on working my way through all issues of The Hot Word.
    It is also pleasing that there are so very few stupid ‘nonsense’ or plain rude entries which ruins so many other blogs.

    Reply
  65. Michael -  May 18, 2011 - 3:51 am

    Afrikaans, a Dutch dialect from South Africa, also shares the word “gezellig” – but has a changed pronunciation: “gesellig”. It has a similar meaning to cosy – but refers more to that feeling of coziness you get when socializing with people you really like and are comfortable with.

    “Vies” strangely enough in Afrikaans, means “to be pissed off”, but it’s much more polite than my translation. Being fully bilingual English-Afrikaans, I can’t seem to find an appropriate English word that captures being “vies) (pronunciation sounds like “pheese”).

    Also, Afrikaans has the word “lekker”, which is similar to the Dutch and German derivative of this word, but doesn’t solely refer to food. In German, I’ve been told, “lecker” would be used to describe tasty food only. However in South Africa “lekker” is used to describe anything that’s really like able or nice – but somehow “nice” just lacks the oomph of “lekker” which can be said with long “l-sound” and a rolling “r” at the end.

    I guess, languages are all about the feeling and cultural context locked up in words, and sometimes that cannot be transferred directly into another language – you’ll have to find that cultural nerve.

    So, perhaps, only the Danish know how to be really hyggelig. The English, and I’m partly mocking myself, aren’t that cozy a culture. Sticking to the “stiff upper lip” is perhaps more fitting – try translating that phrase into Danish.

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  66. Gretchen -  May 17, 2011 - 11:12 pm

    “E kawara” in I-Kiribati (in the Pacific Islands) has nothing with quite the same feeling in English. Literally it’s something like “pity it,” but used in ways that we never do in English. Stubbed your toe? E kawara ” your toe.” Dropped a teapot? E kawara “the teapot.” As in oh, pity the teapot. But also, that man or woman lost a spouse in a tragic accident…, E kawara “that man/woman.” Such wide usage.

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  67. Lostlizard -  May 17, 2011 - 10:34 pm

    First, I was happy to see Anon’s listing of “l’esprit de l’escalier”. I don’t know if we discovered that VERY useful phrase in the same way or the same place (I found it in a list of phrases at the back of an old Webster’s dictionary many, many years ago), but I love it, and there really is no English word for it. In that list was another French phrase, “a la bonne heure”, which literally translates as “at the correct hour”, but it means when something is at just the right time to do or say something; thinking off the top of my head, a woman would have to find “la bonne heure” to tell her husband that she is pregnant with her third child when the couple had agreed to stop procreating after two kids. This phrase goes beyond common sense, or good timing–it’s more delicate and instinctual.

    There is a Danish word I adore, and the closest English phrase is, “here it is.” The word is værsko (spelling? pronounced in English sort of like “vare-skoe”) is used when you hand someone something, such as a coat, a bouquet of flowers, or a bag of groceries. It’s a simple verbal acknowledgement that a hand-to-hand exchange has taken place, and it’s said by the person who is doing the giving. Speaking of Danish (one tough language to learn if you aren’t born into a Danish-speaking family!), they don’t have a word for “please”! As an American whose parents brought her up to use good manners, I went crazy while living there because I couldn’t find any way to say, “please”! There are many degrees of the intensity of word for “thank you” (tak, mange tak, tusind tak–thank you, many thanks, a thousand thanks), but no “please”. . .

    If you are a true word lover, check out the books by Charles Harrington Elster. He finds obscure, outdated, and unusual ENGLISH words (some of them are also from other other languages, but his thing is the English language); my favorite book that he wrote is “There’s A Word For It!” (I know that title should be underlined, not in parentheses), and my favorite word in the book (among many) is “verbigerate”, the word that describes how most teen-aged girls speak (“Well, it’s, like, y’know, um, uh, I mean, like, oh my god, y’KNOW???”, to which a friend would reply something akin to “Oh, like, yeah, um, like, I KNOW!”). I was telling a friend at the front desk at the aquatic center about that word, and she agreed that it drove her as crazy in the lobby as it did to me in the locker room, and we could both hear some teen boys commenting on our conversation (AKA eavesdropping), and they don’t seem to care for it any more than parents and other adults do. When do these girls cease this verbigeration??? I’m an architect, and it’s shocking to me that I hear this language from college graduates when they come in for interviews. Since their English consists of “like” about every third word, it’s difficult to communicate complicated information to them and then get feedback that they understand. Do other languages and countries suffer from this same problem, or is it a specific bundle of ENGLISH “words” (I don’t know if they are words, tics, or a combination of the two, but intelligent girls are able to have conversations that last for hours that are composed almost entirely of the the words I’ve written above) that can’t be translated into any other language? This form of English wasn’t spoken outside of the San Fernando Valley until the movie “Valley Girl” came out across the USA in the early 1980′s, and American speech for teen-age girls hasn’t been the same since. . . I’d love to get some feedback from adults in other countries to see if there is a Farsi or Spanish equivalent of American and Canadian “teen speak”.

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  68. Ralf -  May 5, 2011 - 4:32 am

    Just found out it actually stems from Indonesian, supposedly the word “awur,” “ah-WOOR,” meaning “talking nonsense, talking senselessly.” It’s a fairly big leap in terms of pronunciation, but okay, seems reasonable, at least more so than any relation to prostitution. (Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony, if you wondered.)

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  69. Ralf -  May 5, 2011 - 4:25 am

    “Ouwehoeren” is a Dutch verb that’s hard to translate. It means something like “conversing in a not too serious manner.” As a noun, “ouwehoer” it means somebody who can’t keep his mouth shut and keeps talking much to others’ annoyance. And with the prefix ge-, “geouwehoer,” it’s a verb-turned-noun that means something like “bad, annoying or stressful things happening.”

    The funny thing is that the literal translation is “old hookers,” so I’m puzzled as to the etymology of the word. Maybe prostitutes talk too much. Can’t tell myself if that is true. ;)

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  70. CynLyn -  May 1, 2011 - 8:42 am

    How about Schadenfreude?n That’s one of my favourite loan words. Only the Germans would have a word to describe the joy one feels at another person’s misery!

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  71. ranjana -  April 30, 2011 - 12:52 am

    like the word “Prozvonit “. Is there a word – where a person gives a call on mobile, and disconnects after one ring…or calls and pretends not to hear…meaning to show they have made the effort to call – but infact – have not actually!

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  72. Typo3 Übersetzung -  April 29, 2011 - 1:44 am

    Got to know so many interesting words here. Thanks for the information.

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  73. awjn -  April 22, 2011 - 3:56 am

    I dont know if “Prozvonit” was firstly mentioned in czeck republic. In Slovakia people also use this word, but of course in slovak language “Prezvonit”. It is very similar word as you can see.

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  74. Dan Avakado -  April 16, 2011 - 1:13 am

    often it’s not the mouth  with lack of art to translate the word  
    but the ear canal is narrower than sound through which is heard.
    even speakers of the mother tongue, share a  likewise tendency
    to think themselves likeminded, are so just as far as they agree. 
    and to substitute independent thought for ideals, noble they may be
    as group cooperation, pave the way to mob psychology.
     is the community of a piece, like an Indian carved from wood?
    and service to a common agenda represent the common good?
    give to those what avail you can but from the group best stand alone
    for its direction like a giant sail depends on which way the Wind is blown

    i think of saudade as a longing for a whilom love or the illusion of one that can’t happen again… It translates, but not with one word and portuguese has the extra quality of being the most beautiful sounding language, so that the word itself imparts the very feeling, even to a foreign ear.

    Shadenfreude is an expressive word but a miserable sentiment. Without looking it up, it must have an etymology relating bloodless or cold blooded.

    I prefer to speak of etymology  than words that don’t translate well. who is to say what doesnt translate to another mind? how could one assume to know?

    Equivocation translates loud and clear, but so what?

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  75. Hannah Smith -  April 14, 2011 - 9:53 pm

    Like Stephen, I am quite familiar with Korean, where there are a few words (and probably many more which I do not yet know!) that don’t have a direct translation to English. “Fighting” has already been mentioned, but there are particularly some verbs that do not cross over very well. One that I often have trouble with (now that I know it in Korean, it seems to apply to a lot of situations, and yet I can’t think of how to express it in English) is “답답해” (dab-dab-hae), with conveys a feeling of both being frustrated, run-down, and claustrophobic, or even mentally straining. There are also quite a few that deal with food, such as 시원해 (shi-won-hae) which means “cool” and “refreshing” but is often used in context with hot food. This can be attributed to culture differences too, perhaps, since Koreans find it refreshing to “fight hot with hot” (i.e. eating hot soups in summer, or visiting the sauna in summer). There is also “매콤해” which describes a kind of spicy that is also kind of sweet (though to most Americans it would be just plain spicy!). Besides words that are difficult to translate, though, I always love hearing the loan words that aren’t quiiiite the right word, like “handphone” for cell phone, or “fighting,” which was discussed before.

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  76. Stephen Keen -  April 14, 2011 - 3:30 pm

    For me, a little knowledge of Asian languages like Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.. they all have a word that is standardly used to cheer someone on. “Jia-You” in Chinese, “Gambade” in Japanese, and simply “Fighting” in Korean. Koreans are particularly shocked to find that although fighting is an English word, we never use it in this context. Some of them try to translate it as Cheers or something. In English, people prefer to use a range of words from ‘Come on’, ‘you can do it’ ‘go for it’ and in some cases we would use ‘good luck’ (for about to do a test or go for an interview for example).
    As an English teacher I kind of hate being asked how to translate this, because there is no simple answer and students feel so surprised. It’s just that they like a formula expression, where we would prefer to express it in a personal way. Our sports events are filled with a mixture of shouts from spectators whilst theirs are filled with chants as everyone cheers in unison.

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  77. HD -  April 14, 2011 - 1:35 pm

    I like the Irish ‘leaspáin’ – a word for the coloured, dancing lights that flicker before people’s eyes. Not real ones, illusions as such, caused by tiredness or a knock to the head or the like. Quite pretty.

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  78. Emmi -  April 14, 2011 - 12:52 pm

    The Finnish word “susi” is a trait that all (or almost all, at least) Finnish people have. It is sort of a die-hard, never-give-up, stick it through to the end attitude, and I guess the closest way to explain it in English is like someone having “guts” or “balls”, but even then, that doesn’t quite explain it right.

    Another Finnish word that’s impossible to translate is “kiinni”, which is more often than not used in conjunction with another word, such as the verb, ottaa. “Ota kiinni” is a command “catch”. However, “ovi kiinni” is used to say that the door should be closed (or is closed). In a song by band Happoradio, there is the line “…palaan kiinni sinuun…” which is untranslatable. Palata (palaan in conjugated form) would be “I return” and sinuun means “to you”. Saying I return to you should be sufficient, but the presence of “kiinni” in there indicates that they actually come in contact or touch, but there is no real way to describe the word itself, on its own.

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  79. Bryan Parry -  April 14, 2011 - 8:58 am

    Where I’m from (West London) “Prozvonit” has a perfect English translation: we call it the “one bell”. this can be a verb or a noun. E.G. “I one bele you earlier”. Or, “you didn’t give me a one bell”.

    For clarification, “bell” means call on the telephone in West London lingo.

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  80. justin -  April 14, 2011 - 8:42 am

    I was under the impression that while Charabia may be what gobbledygook is now in French, the original word is borrowed from French. It’s my impression that it was an insensitive way for the French who referred to the languages of SE Asian countries as “gobble-de-gouk.” I try to avoid it. also, good call on “flashing” a number Erik. That’s what my friends called it in Gambia as well. The verb “bipper” is used in French speaking West Africa, as in “bip-moi ton numeral”(you pronounce the p) and in Fulani it is borrowed as “bipugol,” as in “bipan jooni, fii Allah.” It turns out that one is not at all hard to translate and already exists in multiple languages.

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  81. bjvl -  April 14, 2011 - 8:30 am

    As a child, my parents (especially my mother) used the word “quangly” to describe a certain emotional or mental state. It’s where someone, usually a child but not always, is at the point of the day where they are tired, irritable, whiny, prone to cry, wanting to shout, all at the same time.

    I’ve never heard anyone else use it.

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  82. White Raven -  April 14, 2011 - 7:44 am

    Re: nagabax for “go away” used sort of sarcastically between friends –
    It sounds much like the corrupted use of several English phrases I’ve heard used in much the same way. When a friend tells you an unbelievable story or says something outrageous you might respond with “Get out!” “No way!” or “Shut up!” which are all just sarcastic ways of saying “You can’t be serious!”

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  83. aleks -  April 14, 2011 - 5:30 am

    CHALLENGE. translating this word into russian is impossibly nightmarish as there is no word or even concept conveying the meaning of “challenge” in russian.

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  84. flomacaroon -  April 14, 2011 - 3:35 am

    “in Estonian there is a verb viitsima — (vee-tsee-mah) — I have always found it hard to translate. Mainly used as “ei viitsi” and it kind of means when you are either too tired to do something, or just don’t care, or just are not interested, or you really don’t want to bother yourself with something. It is not the same as lazy. I mean, it implies that you are lazy at the time, but I haven’t figured out how to say that in English (I am a native Estonian who has lived in the states for 13 years) when someone asks me if I want to go to the movies and in Estonian I would say: Ei viitsi — it’s not simply I don’t want to, or I am too lazy too, or I don’t want to bother myself with it today… may be it is all of those things together and more, but there just isn’t one word for it in English. Don’t feel up to it is the closest I have come.”

    The very translation of it in French is “avoir la flemme” (the have ‘la flemme’) e.g. J’ai la flemme d’aller au cinéma – I have ‘la flemme’ to go to the cinema. — ‘la flemme” (n.f.) — lazyness, idleness, but more than that.
    It absolutely conveys the same meaning.

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  85. flomacaroon -  April 14, 2011 - 3:16 am

    “I often find myself explaining Italian habits to Americans and American habits to Italians. In doing this, I’ve noticed it’s harder to translate something that’s a unique experience in just one culture. For example, I initially had trouble understanding the Italian “vendemmia”, which is usually translated as the grape harvest in the fall. But that doesn’t explain the connotation of the community or extended family celebration of togetherness and happiness.”

    French = “les vendanges” (n.f.plural)

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  86. flomacaroon -  April 14, 2011 - 3:12 am

    “I remember being in France once an witnessing an American struggling to translate the word “hut” as in “Pizza Hut” to a confused non-English speaker.

    The attempt went something like this:

    “Well, it’s a tiny little building… like a shack, often made out of sticks or underbrush… no windows usually, with a dirt floor… ””

    We have the same in French: une hutte (n.f.)

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  87. flomacaroon -  April 14, 2011 - 3:07 am

    “In Spanish, when one is wearing something for the first time, or driving a new car for the first time, we say that one is “estrenando” the clothes or the car.”

    We have the same in French: “étrenner”

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  88. flomacaroon -  April 14, 2011 - 3:04 am

    “There is a French word called “dis-cu-te” (not sure on the spelling) meaning the upset you feel after having a fight with someone and making up. You have already made up and are past the arguement but you still feel somewhat upset or out of sorts. It is the lingering feeling of being upset even after most of the upset has passed.”

    It’s “se disputer” (v.) or “une dispute” (n.f.)

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  89. flomacaroon -  April 14, 2011 - 3:02 am

    “à l’arrache” (French): to do something “à l’arrache”: means to do something as fast as you can, because you want it behind you right now, you’re fed up of doing this and you want it to be over as soon as possible, even if the result is of bad quality, you just don’t care: e.g.: for homeworks for example: “J’ai fait mes devoirs à l’arrache” (j’ai fait mes devoirs: I’ve done my homeworks)
    “S’arracher” (v): means to leave (in a hurry most of the time, or just because you hated being in this place and you were thinking you wanted to leave right now) E.g.: “Ce film me gonfle, je m’arrache.” (Ce film me gonfle: This movie is getting on my nerves – gonfler=to anoy (slang))

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  90. flomacaroon -  April 14, 2011 - 2:28 am

    “I can think of a few, after learning norwegian, the word “jo”.
    What it is, is a postive response to a double-negative question or not just double negative, but…

    In english if someone asks you “don’t you like tea” and you reply “yes” it isn’t clear without a followup what the response meant. “Yes you do, or yes you don’t?” follows.

    In norwegian, an answer “jo” (instead of JA) explicitly tells that “yes, I DO like tea”. Negative response would be the same as “no” (nei).”

    In French we will say “Si” (= “jo”)

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  91. flomacaroon -  April 14, 2011 - 2:18 am

    Prozvonit, the Czech word, is translated in French as “biper” (je bip, tu bips il,ell,on bip…) Could we say “to bip s.o.” in English?

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  92. Anon -  April 13, 2011 - 10:21 pm

    The German word “zeitgeist” meaning “spirit of the time” which is the general sociocultural, political, ethical climate etc. of a particular era.

    And a French Phrase which I wish there was an English equivalent of:
    “L’esprit de l’escalier” which translates to “the wit of the staircase” and refers to thinking of a clever/witty response to something after the moment has passed.

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  93. TRiNK3T -  April 13, 2011 - 12:51 pm

    One word that is impossible to translate into English is the Japanese word, “desu”. There is no translation. It is basically used as a period to end certain sentences. Example, “watashi wa Trinket desu.” Which translates to, “My name is Trinket.” ‘Watashi’ means ‘I’. The ‘wa’ is the particle that connects ‘I’ to ‘Trinket’ & there is no meaning for ‘desu’.

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  94. N.O -  April 10, 2011 - 3:10 am

    The somalian word, ‘nagabax’ (Pronounced na-ga-bah; the ‘h’ being the throaty ‘h’ used in most arab languages), is very hard to translate. I can’t translate it myself, but I’ll try. A literal translation would be ‘go away’ ‘go/[get] away [from/for us]‘ but the feel of it is entirely different; something across the lines of what you would say to someone irritating you amidst a private conversation but not something you would say to someone you don’t know very well. Most of the time it’s used in a friendly way but, depending on the situation, can be used in anger. It’s not very insulting though.

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  95. ron -  April 2, 2011 - 10:11 pm

    For the Indonesian slang “Jayus”, English has just the precise terms for it: dry and dull (as in dry jokes or dull subjects). I am Indonesian and started hearing people talking that urban slang around 2000 or 2001.

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  96. Janet -  April 1, 2011 - 9:54 am

    What about the Welsh “hiraeth”? It’s often translated as “longing” or “homesickness” but for Welsh people it goes deeper than that. I’s a sense of belonging to the soil itself and that there’s an emptiness inside you that can only be filled by going back to Wales. Though I only live in England, the hiraeth is still strong…

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  97. Joe Miano -  April 1, 2011 - 1:17 am

    The wonderful thing about English is that you do not have to translate everything. We can and do adopt foreign words easily. I would however suggest that the Serb word “inat” meaning a kind of pride-driven revenge is perhaps untranslateable into English.

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  98. Cedric Lynch -  March 31, 2011 - 8:05 am

    In India a prozvonit is called, not only in English but in other languages as well, a “missed-call”, with the emphasis on the “missed”. Over the past few years cellphone calls have become very cheap so the practice is becoming less common.

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  99. Hector -  March 30, 2011 - 5:26 am

    I was very pleased to see “saudade” make this list… I went to high school in Brazil and there clearly is some much lost in translation… Great article…

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  100. angelo -  March 30, 2011 - 5:19 am

    I would suggest one word and a phrase:

    “Makari” in Greek is often translated by the expression “would that it were”, but this doesn’t convey the sense of hope/longing/serendipity/fate that is included in the original Greek.

    Also, many Turkish tales begin with “bir varmus, bir yokmus” (with a cedilla under the “s” to give it a “sh” sound) which is often translated as “Once upon a time…”. The literal translation is really “Once there was, once there was not” which I find much more poetic.

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  101. Mark -  March 29, 2011 - 11:19 pm

    I forgot to mention, the word is Yiddish.

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  102. Mark -  March 29, 2011 - 11:18 pm

    Machetunim (pl.) is the relationship between two people when their children marry. Thus the two fathers-in-law in one marriage are machetunim to each other. BTW, the ch is a gutteral ch such as is pronounced in the German word Ich.

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  103. drkaosolator -  March 29, 2011 - 1:54 pm

    Gobbledygook? Being a native Pole I can think of many more that were hard to translate
    as I learned English. Like “whatever!” my sister’s favorite phrase as a teenager.

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  104. Dennis -  March 29, 2011 - 11:41 am

    The French preposition ‘chez’ is difficult to translate into English, because there’s no corresponding preposition. It’s like ‘at [person's] home’ or ‘at [person or organization's] place of business’. ‘Chez moi’ is ‘at (my) home’. ‘Chez le dentiste’ is ‘to/at the dentist.’

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  105. timepass -  March 29, 2011 - 9:16 am

    दिमाग मत चाटो or दिमाग मत खाओ- literally, don’t lick/eat my brain. Usually said to someone who is boring you to death with their nonsense chatter. What amuses me is that it comes from India where ~40% of the population is vegetarian!

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  106. Mimawright -  March 29, 2011 - 7:22 am

    Fabulous article –I’ll add the German word Unheimlich, which literally means un-home-like and is often translated as “uncanny”, but really means a sense of discomfort that is difficult to pinpoint exactly.

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  107. Ding-Dong -  March 29, 2011 - 6:22 am

    “Glitch” is a word that is almost untranslatable in any language so it’s used as is ! It’s a good example, I think, of the global language — computer-mediated communication — that is evolving faster than anyone suspects, thanks to media technology such as the Internet and the cellphone. Interestingly enough, glitch comes from another global language or lingua terra, Yiddish, where it means “to slip.” (cognate with glide)

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  108. Caroline -  March 28, 2011 - 9:17 pm

    “Anyway” is an interesting word. I’ve heard it used liberally by Iranians speaking Farsi, Filipinos speaking Tagalog, and Frenchmen speaking, well, French.

    In Hawaiian pidgin: “da kine,” according to Wikipedia, “usually functions grammatically as a placeholder name (compare to English ‘whatsit’ and ‘whatchamacallit’), but can also take the role of a verb, adjective, or adverb… A surfing dictionary lists da kine as ‘the word you use when you don’t use the word’…. It also happens to be one of the most frustratingly difficult aspects of Pidgin for non-native speakers to understand.”

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  109. Christopher Brewster -  March 28, 2011 - 4:11 pm

    The word Saudades is used in the title of one of Darius Milhaud’s best-known musical works, “Saudades do Brasil”. I appreciate the discussion here because I now have a better sense of its meaning. (Radio announcers usually give the translation as “memories”.) The work is a suite of short pieces, originally for piano, with several later orchestrated.

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  110. Jason -  March 28, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    How about every word in the Immanuel Kant lexicon? For example, “gegenstand”, usually translated as “object” actually means “a thing in space and time that exists by virtue of its being sensed”. as contrasted with “objekt” which means “an object that exists only in the mind”.

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  111. Malu -  March 27, 2011 - 7:11 pm

    Aloha cannot be translated into English. People mistakenly believe it means hello, goodbye, love, etc., but it is much, much more complex than that.

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  112. Natkat -  March 27, 2011 - 5:04 pm

    The Tagalog language has a word “tinga”. It is a word for the stuff that gets stuck between your teeth. We don’t have a word for it. We just call it “stuff stuck between your teeth”.

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  113. elisa -  March 27, 2011 - 6:54 am

    How about the German word Fernweh, which is the equivalent of Heimweh (homesickness) but being sick for something far away instead, like missing a foreign country or just wanting to get out.

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  114. Cristobal -  March 26, 2011 - 6:32 pm

    The word, “morbo” in Spanish is cool. It refers to an attractiveness based not on beauty, but on something forbidden or dangerous. Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson … morbosos.

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  115. daren -  March 26, 2011 - 1:17 pm

    I believe the best English translation for “gemütlich” is the old-fashioned word “cozy.” ;-)

    Reply
  116. Kai -  March 26, 2011 - 12:24 pm

    in Estonian there is a verb viitsima — (vee-tsee-mah) — I have always found it hard to translate. Mainly used as “ei viitsi” and it kind of means when you are either too tired to do something, or just don’t care, or just are not interested, or you really don’t want to bother yourself with something. It is not the same as lazy. I mean, it implies that you are lazy at the time, but I haven’t figured out how to say that in English (I am a native Estonian who has lived in the states for 13 years) when someone asks me if I want to go to the movies and in Estonian I would say: Ei viitsi — it’s not simply I don’t want to, or I am too lazy too, or I don’t want to bother myself with it today… may be it is all of those things together and more, but there just isn’t one word for it in English. Don’t feel up to it is the closest I have come.

    Reply
  117. Sophia -  March 26, 2011 - 8:22 am

    In Greek the word Συμπέθεροι (pronounced sim-beh-theri) translates into ‘the in-laws of one’s child’ in the plural. συμπεθερε is the singlular for father in law, and συμπεθερa is the singluar for mother in law. In English there is no equivalent, we just say ‘those are my daughter’s in-laws’ for example, but in Greek, they are considered family, and so you call them by this one word. Likewise, the entire family of the groom/bride would call the parents of the bride/groom συμπεθερa or συμπεθερε as a mater of addressing them, as opposed to calling them by their first name or addressing them as ‘Mr. and Mrs.’

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  118. Kaye -  March 26, 2011 - 5:42 am

    No one has mentioned the word used in Austria – ‘schmaeh’ (can’t do umlauts on my keyboard)
    It describes the quality of being a bit slippery, officious but oily at the same time, like you never get the real answer from someone but it is not in a hurtful way, more like a trickster.

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  119. Tylda -  March 26, 2011 - 4:20 am

    “Załatwić” is Polish word that means ‘manage to arrange something, but in an unconventional way.

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  120. Larry -  March 25, 2011 - 4:03 pm

    all the things I’ve learned since I knew it all:

    tuerto is one word I never worked out when living in Latin America (not to mention extensive Spanish studies in college at various levels!)

    Very enlightening experience: I Googled a word in Spanish!

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  121. Larry -  March 25, 2011 - 3:55 pm

    comments on various entries here:

    1. Have I not heard, correctly, “donné” (past participle in French) used as “given” rather than “donner” (infinitive, “to give”)? Is that not “a given?”

    2. Is “tuerto” NOT “cross-eyed” in Spanish, rather than “one-eyed?”

    3. “Ser” and “estar” have general equivalents in Italian, but certainly do not have identical functions as “stare” and “essere.”

    4. Speaking of translating challenges: anyone want to explain in another language the following?

    Here it is:

    Why do you do what you do to me?
    Why do you do it?

    (Of course, many second-language English speakers can translate it to another language, but it does get complicated to explain the “do” as an auxiliary verb rather than “faire,” “hacer” or “fare.”)

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  122. kiti -  March 25, 2011 - 1:42 am

    kilig. Filipino term, definition of which is sweeter and more intense than thrill or “that giddy feeling” one feels when one is in love.

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  123. Vikinga -  March 24, 2011 - 11:16 am

    I would just like to point out that “hyggelig” is the same word, with the same meaning, in Norwegian as well. So it’s not just Danish! :p
    In Norwegian we also have the word “koselig”, which could translate to “cozy”. But it gets harder with the verb “å kose seg” which directly translates to “to cozy oneself”. I think it’s just a too Norwegian thing to do to translate.

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  124. Cleber -  March 24, 2011 - 10:47 am

    One possible meaning to the Portuguese term “saudade”, in English, is “to miss (somebody or something”, or “to miss deeply”. For example: “I missed you a lot since you left this town”.

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  125. Slamlander -  March 24, 2011 - 5:36 am

    Danish word Hyggelig
    Dutch word is gezellig
    German word is gemütlich

    They all mean the same warm, cozy, comfortable, safe, glowy feeling. It is a feeling that English has no precise words for.

    From other commenters:

    “Vies is a word similar to dirty … think of ‘fly in the butter’.” — Sorry, the proper English translation there is ‘filthy’.

    Another is smakelijk, which sort of means tasty. — Sorry, the proper English translation there is ‘delicious’ but is probably better served by the slang term ‘scrumptious’.

    Then there is lekker, which implies it is so tasty you’re going back for second helpings even though you are full and don’t need more. — This one is good. ;)

    Yes, I am a native speaker of both Dutch and English. I am Indo.

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  126. 不思議 -  March 24, 2011 - 12:28 am

    There are words that can’t be translated into English due to the differences in grammar and syntax. There are a whole bunch in Japanese such as です(desu), じゃありません (jaarimasen), でした (deshita), etc. which are sentence endings which determine the politeness of the sentence (and the tense of the sentence). Some people translate です as “am” or “is”, or “it is” but that is incorrect since ですis not a verb like the english “to be” and it would make strange translations if it was translated as “it is” is longer sentences. ですbasically just tells the listeners that you are speaking to someone of higher or equal status, and if you left it out or used だ it would make your sentence more casual. (Though they are considered opposites, です and だ are not interchangeable)

    Other things that can’t be translated into English at all are “particles” (most of them anyway) which exist in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, and others.
    In Japanese, は(wa), が(ga/nga), を(o/wo), に(ni) are very common particles but have no translation in English since English doesn’t use particles whatsoever. A Japanese sentence lacking particles becomes grammatically incorrect and incomphrensible in many cases, especially because of the particles, sentence segments are arranged much more flexibly and freely compared to the rigid structure of English sentences.

    今は日本語を勉強しています。
    “I am studying Japanese right now.”
    or literally: “Speaking of right now, Japanese (am) studying”

    今日本語勉強します。
    Without the particles you can still read the sentence but it is unclear what the topic of the sentence is, and what “studying” is modifying. With smaller sentences like this, the meaning can still be found, but with longer and more complex sentences, it would make little sense.

    The verb always appears at the end of Japanese sentences, but the main thing that the verb is modfying could be anywhere in the sentence, and there could be many things being modified in any order in the sentence. I see many sentences that start with the “object” being modified, and then after a line or two end with the verb modifying it.

    東京に行った。
    “I went to Tokyo.”

    Without the particle this sentence could still be understood (though it would sound unnatural) but once you increase the sentence to normal lengths (speakers of any language don’t use short sentences unless neccessary):

    東京。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。。行った。

    It is almost impossible to know that “Tokyo” is being modified by “went”.

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  127. Philip -  March 23, 2011 - 2:29 pm

    How about the German word ” doch”? It has so many many meanings as to be almost untranslatable. Like the Norwegian word “do” it can mean “yes” to a negative question (i.e. makes it positive), can be used to assert or emphasise a point, etc.,etc.
    The word “mal” is somewhat similar. Meaning “times” or “by” (as in 4 by two) but can also be used to encourage or emphasise .
    “Ruf doch mal an!” means “Go on! Make a telephone call!” “Ruf an!” means the same witout the “go on, do it!” implied by “doch” and “an”.

    Two words which can very easilly get mixed up are “schwül” and “schwul”. The pronunciations are very similar too. “Schwül” means “close” as describes weather in “Isn’t it close today!” whereas “schwul” means (male) homosexual.
    What a diference two littledots make! “Isn’t it homosexual today!” Just a little digression from the theme.

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  128. AntonioSaucedo -  March 23, 2011 - 12:11 pm

    As far as I know, the two hardest Spanish words to translate into not just English but into any other language, with the exception of Portuguese, are “ser” and “estar,” both meaning “to be.”

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  129. Claudine -  March 23, 2011 - 8:41 am

    following up on cadeau (which as a noun does mean ‘a gift’) people say “ce n’est pas un cadeau” (it is not a gift) but also, I think more commonly, “ce n’est pas donner” (it is not given). Both are used to indicate something that is hard work, or doesn’t come easily. You can also use “ce n’est pas donner” for something that is expensive (they’re not giving it away).

    For ‘faire la guele’, it kind of means sulking but in a more vulgar language (picture a teenage girl being told she can’t wear those tight jeans, elle ‘fait la guele’ in response)

    another un-translatable from french that I like is ‘faire marcher’ which literally translated means ‘to make walk’ but actually is used as that person is pulling your leg (getting you going). “il te fait marcher, don’t believe him…”

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  130. sharonj -  March 23, 2011 - 8:32 am

    One of my favorite “untranslatables” from Italian is “brutta figura”. Now, I know, I know, in English we can always rely on our “bad impressions”, but, really, “brutta figura” (and it’s goody two shoes twin, the “bella figura”) say so much more… A bad impression can be made only once, when we first meet somebody (and then we have the rest of the relationship to straighten things out!), but the thing that kills me about the dreaded “brutta figura” is that it can happen at any time, throughout a friendship/relationship. Wear the wrong shirt to a family reunion…Brutta figura! Say the wrong thing to a trusted client? Brutta figura! (and maybe you’ll be out of a job, too. Now that’s REALLY brutta figura! What would all the neighbors say?). My mother-in-law is always fretting about trying to achieve a “bella figura” at her dinner parties because, if not…yep, that’s right, it’ll be a brutta figura, even if they’re her dear friends. Aaarrrggghhh! I teach English to executives in Milan, and I wonder if perhaps one of the reasons that (some) Italians resist foreign languages (even though once they set their minds to learning they always do superbly) is that they fear … the brutta figura!

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  131. WBC -  March 23, 2011 - 7:13 am

    The Trinidadian word “tabanca” is a noun conveying a sense of loss or longing for someone who does not return the sufferer’s love or affection.

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  132. Jeff -  March 23, 2011 - 5:41 am

    In Japanese, “goraikou” means “sunrise seen from the top of a tall mountain”.

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  133. Brad Riendeau -  March 22, 2011 - 8:50 pm

    For “a l’arrache” let me suggest that when it is used in the sense of “a cheval” it would translate into English as rushed. When it is used in the sense of having hooked something or grabbed it to pull it down, a different translation would apply.

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  134. Amy Heller -  March 22, 2011 - 7:57 pm

    Yiddish is full of flavorful, hard-to-translate words–which is why so many have been incorporated into English (schlub, kvetch, schlep). But the one the comes to mind is “ungupatchka” (spelling?) which is an adjective that you use to describe anything that is overly decorated. You might see a dress with flowers, sequins, ruffles and react: “Oy, now that is so ungupatchka!”

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  135. Niknar -  March 22, 2011 - 4:30 pm

    Look for words from cultures with significantly different cosmologies. If the underlying understanding of what is a person, what is community, what is the structure of reality is fundamentally different than that of the major players in today’s world; then words expressing the relative qualities of social or familial realities would be very hard to translate. Examples would be the Pacific Indian tribes from the US Northwest (where something was more real if it was closer physically or temporally), or perhaps the abos from Western Australia.

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  136. Thomas Beck -  March 22, 2011 - 12:25 pm

    I think, more than individual or specific words, it is idioms and slang that are the hardest to translate, along with, perhaps, the specific uses of profanity that sound natural to a native-speaker but are hardest for someone learning a language to emulate. The use of “like,” for example, in English, or the placement of the f-word as a modifier – the way “go” has become a synonym for “speak” – the figurative use of certain words rather than their literal usage – those must be almost impossible to translate into another language at least simply. I’m sure it’s the same for many idiomatic uses of other languages being translated into English.

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  137. Marcie -  March 21, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    The very simple preposition “chez” in French is almost impossible to translate into English, because it has so many meanings in different situations. It can me “over here near me”, “where I am at the moment”, “at the home of”, “at the place or business of”, and many other things. As a French teacher, I found this word very difficult to explain to my students.

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  138. paula rogness -  March 21, 2011 - 1:34 pm

    Uff da – Norwegian expression that encompasses much more than literal translation can convey — used by many Norwegian-Americans in the Upper Midwest when confronted by something surprising or somewhat overwhelming. Very versatile — “oh my” ,”too much” , maybe even “oy” — perhaps?

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  139. Elizabeth -  March 21, 2011 - 11:19 am

    I am English and I miss being able to use some words that are so colloquial that no-one in America would understand them. Grotty- for nasty , but it has a slightly different meaning, more physical, like my face looks really grotty.

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  140. Dave Kay -  March 21, 2011 - 11:00 am

    My “Dois Centavos” about English & Portuguese:

    I’m American, and I teach English in Brazil. In my time doing this, I have yet to encounter a single Brasileiro who uses the word ‘boring’ correctly when they speak English. Everyone here uses this word as ‘something that I didn’t like’ not as an antonym of ‘exciting’. Example: “The party was boring. At one point, the sofa caught fire, and firemen came to put it out.” Maybe not a great party, but it certainly wasn’t boring! I make this comment because it seems to be misused here 100% of the time. I’m only beginning my relationship with Portuguese, so any insight as to why this is would be helpful.

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  141. Lisa -  March 20, 2011 - 8:57 am

    Haven’t seen anything about Italian, so I thought I’d add my two cents. I consider myself bicultural as well as bilingual because I’ve been to Italy visiting friends and relatives so many times I’ve lost count. I have many cousins who are also bicultural/bilingual, so we find ourselves beginning conversation in one language, and switching back and forth between languages when we can’t remember the Italian or English word for something it in the other language.
    I often find myself explaining Italian habits to Americans and American habits to Italians. In doing this, I’ve noticed it’s harder to translate something that’s a unique experience in just one culture. For example, I initially had trouble understanding the Italian “vendemmia”, which is usually translated as the grape harvest in the fall. But that doesn’t explain the connotation of the community or extended family celebration of togetherness and happiness. So when a Italian businessman, who inadvertently scheduled his visit for the last 2 weeks in November, asked what Thanksgiving was, I hesitated, then translated it as una specie di vendemmia, originalmente religiosa, adesso comercializzata. (A kind of harvest, originally religious and now commercialised)

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  142. Ms. Pixie -  March 20, 2011 - 5:31 am

    In Spanish when one is baptized,or christens a baby the parents become comadre/compadre.
    I.E. Co-parents to the child. In english there is no equivalent to this term.
    I believe this is significant because forever after the adults refer to each other as comadre-compadre, further reinforcing the original bond of baptism long after that one day of the event.

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  143. thia -  March 19, 2011 - 10:55 pm

    to steve : the English word “disquiet” might be close

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  144. Preston -  March 19, 2011 - 11:59 am

    This is bad yo! Word up. Bust it funky and keepin’ it real! Know wha’ I’m sayin?

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  145. Bill -  March 19, 2011 - 8:21 am

    Cindy,
    Would “collegiality” be a good translation of the Spanish “convivencia” (a word I’ve always liked saying)? Colleagues work together with a shared purpose. But the work setting might not involve the sense of personal closeness suggested by “convivencia.”

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  146. Zach -  March 18, 2011 - 3:03 pm

    How about the adage that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but we have a colloquial phrase that uses two rights to make a wrong!

    “Yeah, right!” translates as “Yes, correct,” but means “no!” in a terse, snarky or offhand way.

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  147. Richard Haller -  March 18, 2011 - 10:50 am

    How about the German word, “kitsch”? It has been adopted whole into English but is supposedly based on the English word “sketch”.

    As I understand it, it originally meant “art” of dubious aesthetic value that was sold to tourists. Sort of like bullfighters (or Elvis) on black velvet. But probably has a broader meaning now.

    On the other hand, some people might say that a person who uses this word is “snooty”. ;-)

    In any case, I think that one can say of kitsch, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” ;-)

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  148. fixilator -  March 18, 2011 - 9:00 am

    I remember being in France once an witnessing an American struggling to translate the word “hut” as in “Pizza Hut” to a confused non-English speaker.

    The attempt went something like this:

    “Well, it’s a tiny little building… like a shack, often made out of sticks or underbrush… no windows usually, with a dirt floor… ”

    Needless to say, the non-English speaker was confused as to why anyone would name a restaurant this.

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  149. Amy -  March 18, 2011 - 6:24 am

    The Hebrew “Dafka” means something like” just because”, but not exactly. Which is, dafka, why it cannot exactly be translated into English.

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  150. Chris -  March 18, 2011 - 6:04 am

    There is a phrase (2 words, sorry) that we wrestled with in Greek class: mee genoito. The apostle Paul uses it a lot and in the King James version it is usually translated “God forbid!” (as in “Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid!”) But it actually involves a verb tense for which English has no equivalent. If I remember our professor said a literal rendering would be along the lines of “May it turn out (in the future) never to have happened ( in the past)!” So it expresses a deep aversion to the situation ever arising. Back in the 70s the closest expression we could come up with was “No way!”

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  151. Carole -  March 17, 2011 - 2:54 pm

    When I was teaching English in Berlin, a student asked me how to say ‘kein Begriff’ in English. It means ‘no concept’ in English, but that doesn’t cover it because we really don’t think quite that way. It is a very common expression in casual conversational German, but it sounds stilted and academic in English. I ended up saying (in German) that we had no ‘Begriff’ for ‘Begriff’

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  152. Wilson Dizard -  March 16, 2011 - 10:59 pm

    ‘ghelah-gahdah’

    The exact American English translation for this word is “skylarking.”

    Skylarking formerly was used as the name of a petty offense in the US Navy, meaning when the sailors would become giddy, silly and so high-spirited as to ignore orders and imperil discipline.

    This type of behavior would be observed on a vessel after a storm ended, and the sun shined and the sea is calm, after perhaps a three or five day blow in the North Atlantic.

    Uncontrollable exuberance was the inevitable result of the release of tension.

    As for an untranslatable word: does any language have a word for “uncontrollable drooling as a result of having had dry mouth for a week during exposure to continuous shelling?” That would be useful.

    The American English equivalents of gestalt use forms of the word holistic, or holistically. Gestalt therapy was the brand name for a type of talk therapy that gained spurious credibility from the German term.

    There are many words for family relationships used in English language legal documents that come direct from Latin. For example, English doesn’t have a compact translation for per stirpes, meaning, I believe, a descended by blood rather than by adoption.

    English is the international language of air traffic control, so it’s likely that there are many English language terms of art in that industry that have no equivalents in other languages.

    One would be the adjective “heavy,” added to an airline flight number, referring to a large capacity airliner such as a Boeing 747. Those aircraft couldn’t turn as sharply as smaller jets, they took longer to take off, and they created local turbulence to be avoided by light aircraft.

    So one would hear something along the lines of “Pan Am 236 heavy,” referring to the US flag carrier’s airline flight number using jumbo jet equipment.

    One term that is newly coming into use is “to Zucker,” a transitive verb which means “to steal personal identifying information, especially in large quantities.”

    One might get a letter from a bank reporting that a debit card number had been Zuckered by cybercriminals. Or that an online service had zuckeredor hijacked your personal identifying information and that of thousands of other people, and sold it en masse to online marketers.

    “Foley artists” and related words all trace back to a Mr. Foley who invented many Hollywood sound effects.

    So Foley artists are the sound designers that add the sounds of ringing telephones or chirping crickets or keys hitting a table to movie sound tracks. Foley famously innovated the use of coconut halves for the clip-clop of horse hooves.

    Advancing technology has pushed many words towards oblivion, including percolator and carburetor, as well as an entire lexicon of telegraphic abbreviations.

    The famous exchange of telegrams from Zola to his publisher inquiring about book sales, in the form of the single character ? , brought the gratifying response ! , because his book had become a bestseller.

    Perhaps the most concise telegram ever went from a newly conquered province of India back to London, in Latin.

    Major General Charles James Napier, 60, received command of the Indian Army in the Bombay Presidency in 1842. He was sent to Sindh province to suppress a rebellion. He proceeded to conquer the province. Wikipedia says:

    “His orders had been only to put down the rebels, and by conquering the whole Sindh Province he greatly exceeded his mandate.

    “Napier was supposed to have dispatched to his superiors the short, notable message, “Peccavi”, the Latin for “I have sinned” (which was a pun on I have Sindh).

    “This pun appeared in a cartoon in Punch magazine in 1844 beneath a caricature of Charles Napier.”

    Other telegram words included “soonest,” meaning as soon as possible, and so forth.

    One of the most remarkable untranslatable “words” actually stood for several words.

    The Ripley Believe it or Not franchise’s syndicated newspaper feature once received a postal mail envelope where the address was not written, but only indicated by a small tear in the middle of the front of the envelope.

    Sharp-eyed US Postal Service employees delivered to the letter to Ripley’s, Believe it or Not.

    Look for a movie version of the life of Robert LeRoy Ripley, starring Jim Carrey, in 2012, believe it or not.

    —–the99er

    —30–

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  153. pauluap -  March 16, 2011 - 4:24 pm

    the hardest words to translate from english are “so” and “nice”; jus my opinion

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  154. Vernon Smith -  March 16, 2011 - 2:50 pm

    Arrache…comes from the sport of weightlifting and it means to snatch something away.( Hee Harrop’s Dictionary). For example: gagner a l’arrache…to snatch a win. Normally a surprise result…the concept of when someone pulls something out of the fire. The idea of “He pulled it off !.”

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  155. Karlo -  March 16, 2011 - 11:07 am

    There is no English equivalent for the German word “gestalt”, meaning “a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts”, maybe the best phrase translation would be “the whole schmear”.

    Nice page you have here but to be honest I prefer Ms HotForWords on YouTube :)

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  156. Rui Costa, Lisbon, Portugal -  March 16, 2011 - 10:03 am

    Following the link actually gives you a much better definition than the one provided.
    Here’s my own two cents on the latter:
    «
    “Saudade” is a Portuguese word all about love and loss: of longing for someone or something that someone has loved (or still does) and lost (or still has, though possibly beyond reach).
    Deeply ingrained in our culture and culturally charged, there’s a tint of inevitability to it. It is stronger than English “nostalgia”, the better word in The Bard’s language being “yearning”.
    »

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  157. Juancho -  March 16, 2011 - 8:53 am

    For the translation of “goobbledygook” into Spanish try “galimatías”.

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  158. Dan -  March 16, 2011 - 8:30 am

    Several European languages, but not English, have exact translations for German Treppenrede “stairs-talk,” describing the realizing of what you should have said to win an argument only as you’re walking down the stairs after leaving the scene, which is, of course, too late to do any good.

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  159. Paul -  March 15, 2011 - 3:41 pm

    The specificity of all these words and our recognition of their meanings from such different cultures highlight how similar we all are. It is too easy to get caught up in our differences. We all have experienced “tartle” and “wabi”. Thanks for a great article! And thanks to each of you who added to it.

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  160. Alejandra -  March 15, 2011 - 1:13 pm

    In Spanish, when one is wearing something for the first time, or driving a new car for the first time, we say that one is “estrenando” the clothes or the car.

    Also, a wonderful word is “engentado” (this may be only in Mexico) means that you are overwhelmed by there being too many people around you and you are feeling cranky or claustrophobic because of them.

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  161. Amanda -  March 15, 2011 - 12:56 pm

    Teresa– Ubicarse is a Spanish word I always wish we had an equivalent for in English, and one of the few I’ll throw out in an English sentence because it doesn’t exist.

    Another Spanish word I love is “ingentado” or possibly “engentado” which translates, sort of, to “people-d out.” It’s that feeling when you’ve been socializing for too many days in a row and you’re just DONE. Time to hide out in a room alone with a book and not talk to anyone for a while.

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  162. Eva -  March 15, 2011 - 12:53 pm

    German has great words, such as “Weltschmerz”–the pain that comes just from living in the world; the previously mentioned “Schadenfreude”, which is joy at someone else’s pain; “Torschlusspanik”, which refers to people doing things at the very last opportunity–such as getting married at age 39 or 40, just before the ‘door slams shut’.
    Then there’s Spanish, where you can create words by combining others which are then easily understood; e.g., combine “arquitecto” with “tonto” to get “arquitonto”–a stupid architect; or “ingeniero” (engineer) combined with “inebrio” (drunk) to make “ingenebrio”–a drunken engineer!!

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  163. louis paiz -  March 15, 2011 - 4:53 am

    the word cafune from portuguese,in spapanish is when someone take his or her loveone close to your chest and caress his or her hear they call that action or sign of love acariciar or caricia when you say i love you and passes your hand combing the hear with your fingers. thanks

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  164. Steve -  March 14, 2011 - 10:03 pm

    There is a French word called “dis-cu-te” (not sure on the spelling) meaning the upset you feel after having a fight with someone and making up. You have already made up and are past the arguement but you still feel somewhat upset or out of sorts. It is the lingering feeling of being upset even after most of the upset has passed.
    I always loved that word as it really defines an actual feeling that we don’t have an acurate equivilent of in English.

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  165. Stephan Hughes -  March 14, 2011 - 6:51 pm

    Since you mention two Brazilian words, how about translating “jeito” which doesn’t always add up “way”: The Brazilian way to do things

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  166. Kim -  March 14, 2011 - 3:24 pm

    How about these in Spanish: Manco–a one armed man and Cojo–one legged man. What’s up with names for missing body parts?!

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  167. Louise -  March 14, 2011 - 3:13 pm

    Re the 2 French words/expressions noted in the comments….”Cadeau” is “Gift” in English but there is a French expression … “C’est pas un cadeau” used in the spoken French (or …ce n’est pas un cadeau… in the written form) which would translate depending on what you are talking about…it is difficult ..it’s not easy….it’s a pain etc….

    As for the expression “à l’arrache” I don’t know that expression but the verb “arracher” would be to pull, to tear…like “arracher la mauvaise herbe” would be to pull up the weeds (not sure if this is the correct expression in English…no dictionary in this place alors… no spell check either :-) )…. The expression “J’en arraches” would be translated by “I’m having a hard time”…”It’s difficult”…

    When I was a part-time French teacher to English adults many years ago….some very simple words were difficult to translate….”a mansion” was “une grosse propriété” etc…..

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  168. Rob -  March 14, 2011 - 5:47 am

    Try the Swedish word ‘lagom’ which roughly translates to average or normal but none of those words really capture the essence of the Swedish word which attempts to put everyone on par with by being no better or no worse than the other.

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  169. david -  March 14, 2011 - 3:01 am

    On this about about a word better than nostalgia, I would suggest “yearn”, which is “to be filled with longing or desire” and fits the context perfectly. Homesick would do in some cases as commented by Guillermo. In spanish I would expect añorar or derivatives.

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  170. ✿D.C✿ -  March 14, 2011 - 1:34 am

    Isn’t there going to be anymore hotword blog?

    Reply
  171. Adelaide -  March 13, 2011 - 4:10 pm

    How about the one they sing in Mary Poppins. Please don’t ask me to spell it. Is it a word or a bunch of sylables put together? I like this site. Always need to know

    Reply
  172. Olga -  March 13, 2011 - 4:01 pm

    Where Czechs use prozvonit we, Russians, say sdelat’ prozvon or even sbrosit’. But it’s more like slang phrases and you may be misunderstood, especially by the older people (as prozvon originally means an actual successul call or a series of calls while sbrosit’ is to throw something from a higher place or to decline a call). I googled the topic and found also bomzh-zvonok (bomzh is an abbreviation for a homeless person, so it’s like a “tramp-call” if we translate the parts). In Ukraine the most common verb for that will be mayaknut’ (mayak in Russian means a beacon).
    Thank you for the interesting post!

    Reply
  173. Simen -  March 10, 2011 - 10:49 am

    I have always been told that there are no equivalent for the norwegian word “dugnad”. It basically means “a group of people, not necessarily knowing each other, that work together towards a common goal”. The most common use is when neighborhoods come together in the spring and autumn to clean, wash, and garden the common areas around their houses. It is also widely uses when sports teams, choirs, or other organizations come together and take on a job gathering money for a special event that exceeds the budget. Like a soccer-team gathering money to go to a soccer-cup abroad. It is voluntarily, but everyone has a sensation that it is obligatory. Sort of like common sense.
    With google translate it translates into volunteer which is not accurate at all. Does anyone have a better suggestion to an equivalent in english?

    Reply
  174. Guillermo Matías -  March 10, 2011 - 10:42 am

    Oh, that crap talk about “saudades”. I can’t stand that no more, really. I really don’t have the time right now to explain it to non-Brazilian Portuguese speakers—if you do have the time and agree with me that this is one of the longest fake difficult translations ever in such pair of idioms, please be my guest.

    Here’s the deal: Eu tenho saudades de fulano = I miss John Doe.

    People tend to argue that “saudades” is stronger and blah blah blah. Bullshit, take my word for it. You miss, you miss a lot, that’s all “saudade”. Then you have “homesick” for “sentir saudades de casa”, which is a perfect general translation.

    Ana Cristina César has a well-know essay about translating Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” and she runs for I-don’t-know-how-many-pages about translating the sole title of it. That’s some tough translation issue, for god’s sake, not “saudades”.

    Reply
  175. Amanda Grueneberg -  March 9, 2011 - 8:16 pm

    What about helter-skelter? Is that easily translated?

    Reply
  176. Hannah -  March 9, 2011 - 8:05 pm

    “Sehnsucht” is a German word that means longing, esp. for a place; unfortunately in cannot be perfectly translated into English :)

    Reply
  177. Nadia -  March 9, 2011 - 8:02 pm

    The Japanese verb “yaru,” has such a broad meaning it can’t be just translated as one specific word. It can be tacked onto the command form for almost any word as well, and doesn’t particularly change the meaning.

    For example: “koroshite yaru” means “I’ll kill you”, literally being “will kill” or just “kill.” However “korosu” by itself could accomplish the same affect.
    Also, yaru can just be “to have sex,” and various other verbs that have to be figured out contextual.
    Basically it is the equivalent of “to do,” but sometimes more complicated.

    Reply
  178. Mango -  March 9, 2011 - 7:43 pm

    Saudades D: I saw that at a funeral :/

    Reply
  179. Ulysses -  March 9, 2011 - 7:37 pm

    Duende is actually translated to elf.

    Reply
  180. R -  March 9, 2011 - 7:17 pm

    I think Prozvonit would be translated into English as ‘Prank.’ I’m sure it’s colloquial but entirely accepted, at least within Australia, as meaning the act of calling someone and immediately hanging up in order that they call you back, generally due to the fact that the initial caller doesn’t have any credit. ‘Sorry for pranking you, I can’t recharge until I get paid’ etc.

    Reply
  181. Rick -  March 9, 2011 - 7:08 pm

    I am no expert, but I would translate Hyggelig “all fat, dumb and happy.” It is also used in Norway.

    Reply
  182. Teresa -  March 9, 2011 - 6:54 pm

    Ubicarse (most commonly heard as command ubícate) is a Spanish word that you would say if you want someone to orient themselves to the surroundings or know their role in the situation. For example, if someone is laughing at a funeral, you’d say to them, “¡Ubícate!”

    Reply
  183. arab nigga -  March 9, 2011 - 6:49 pm

    okayyyyy…gud to kno…i think

    Reply
  184. Anucat -  March 9, 2011 - 6:38 pm

    kattumaram in tamil

    Reply
  185. Ellen -  March 9, 2011 - 6:33 pm

    I love the Spanish word desamor, which has no equivalent in English. It sort of means, falling out of love.

    Reply
  186. Tobi -  March 9, 2011 - 6:24 pm

    About the Czech word ‘prozvonit’: There’s a German verb that means the same: ‘anklingeln’ (to ring up)

    Reply
  187. viennashade -  March 9, 2011 - 6:23 pm

    Umami. Whenever I try to use the word savory to replace it, people just don’t get what I mean. It has too many other connotations. We should just use the loan words.

    Reply
  188. Mark -  March 9, 2011 - 6:21 pm

    I believe the English equivalent of the Yiddish word “clafty” would be “frumpy.” As in, “That woman is wearing a frumpy dress.”

    Reply
  189. Mouthful of Marbles -  March 9, 2011 - 5:51 pm

    Chaubunagungamaug sometimes spelt chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg is from the Algonquian Indian language Nipmuc and translates as “Fishing place at the boundaries, neutral meeting grounds”. Although, I have often heard that it translates as: “You fish on your side, I fish on my side, and nobody fish in the middle”. :)

    There is a lake in Massachusetts (a fine word in its own right!) named Lake Chaubunagungamaug, but for obvious reasons is also know as Lake Webster.

    Reply
  190. Shiraz -  March 9, 2011 - 4:42 pm

    There are lots in Gujarati that defy translation; some I can never explain to my friends, you just have to know. One is ‘ghelah-gahdah’, which means doing silly things like mucking about, making faces, things that kids do. Another word is ‘jabra’, which means quite cheeky, outspoken or manipulative. Again, these are loose translations and always sound better in Gujarati!

    Reply
  191. Alan Zukof -  March 9, 2011 - 4:21 pm

    The male equivalent of “shiksa” is “sheigetz,” in case you were wondering….

    Reply
  192. Merry anne -  March 9, 2011 - 4:02 pm

    I loved this whole chain of comments; wish I could save it somehow. Wonderful to have an (obviously) international group of word-lovers on board. Thanks to all who wrote in.

    Reply
  193. andy -  March 9, 2011 - 3:59 pm

    here’s one from a book, “the meaning of tingo”…

    Backpfeifengesicht a German word meaning “a face that cries out for a fist in it!!!”

    ps tingo means in a Easter Island dialect “to borrow objects from a friend’s house, one by one, until there’s nothing left”.

    translate them!!!

    Reply
  194. Cindy -  March 9, 2011 - 3:34 pm

    A few years ago I translated some interviews from Spanish to English and I found that the noun “convivencia” had no real equivalent in English. The translation the dictionary offers is “co-habitation”, but it is more than that. I translated it as “interacting or living with others in a way in which thoughts and feelings held close to the heart are shared” or “working together with people for the same purpose”. Whether it be family, neighbours, co-workers or community members, it almost exclusively conveys a warm positive interaction.

    Convivencia would be the result of doing tequio, a Nahuatl word which means “to work together to reach common goals that the pueblo or “people” organize” for example, to improve a local institution, repair rural roads, improve the schools, renovate the public plaza, etc.

    Reply
  195. Eyewitness -  March 9, 2011 - 3:32 pm

    So much fun and so informative, however, for blogs like this in the future, would you please embed pronounciation apps (like the little speaker symbol in Dictionary.com). I found myself wishing I knew how these other-language entries were pronounced. For obvious reasons, it is not applicable to “sound out” non-English words phonetically.

    Reply
  196. DLM -  March 9, 2011 - 2:21 pm

    If anyone can help me translate in English the French expression “à l’arrache”, I’d be grateful.

    Reply
  197. Kate -  March 9, 2011 - 1:06 pm

    “Quatsch” in German is a good one. Until just barely, I haven’t been able to think of a good translation, but now I know: it’s gobbledygook.

    It can be used as a noun or a verb– when used as a noun, it’s closer to the English word ‘nonsense’ (or gobbledygook). When used as a verb (quatschen), it can mean ‘hanging out’ or ‘wasting time’.

    Reply
  198. Ray -  March 9, 2011 - 12:40 pm

    COMMENTARILY–

    LEKKER, probably relates to LECHER– going back for excessively-more pie…

    CHARABIA (Fr. Gobbledygook) is probably Franglaise (French-English, Franglish) jargon for ‘Char-Arabia’ because Arabia (cf Erebus) already means dark-skin and the intended blague humor is ultra-burnt-Arabian where Arabian is difficult for the French to understand! (The French move to the coast for their summers, while the Arabs move into France because it’s cooler than their own summers in Arabia!)

    (I think we can figure-out some of these abstruse obfuscations….)
    ___

    My French teacher, a Paris, said, LE CADEAU (gift-sort-of), was especially difficult to translate into English… (Obviously we did not learn why).
    __

    NEXT– we can do the words you don’t want to use in public…

    e.g.
    Master debater,
    Cunning linguist,
    Cupulate,

    ___

    AND SAY–

    If Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday, wouldn’t Ash Wednesday be Mercredi Cendre? (Or Mercredi Frene– Which kind of Ash is it, really?)

    Reply
  199. Steve -  March 9, 2011 - 12:40 pm

    I think a better sense for the Indonesian word jayus is ‘camp’, the art of a joke so bad it’s good. The 60s Batman television series was the height of camp or jayus.

    Reply
  200. David E. -  March 9, 2011 - 12:39 pm

    The beauty of the English language is that it takes words wholesale from other languages.

    Reply
  201. Diane D. -  March 9, 2011 - 12:37 pm

    Those of you who posted other suggested words, without TRYING to translate them, please add detail so we know why they’re good candidates!

    Reply
  202. Summer -  March 9, 2011 - 12:37 pm

    I know that when I lived in France and tried to explain “faire la gueule” to English people it was a mission!

    Reply
  203. Diane D. -  March 9, 2011 - 12:36 pm

    My mother used to use the word “bauch” (SP? said /bowk/) to refer to the sort of big belly beer-drinkers and suchlike get — she didn’t even realize it was simply the German word for belly, apparently acquired from her father, whose parents were German (a beer-drinking people, after all)!

    Reply
  204. Diane D. -  March 9, 2011 - 12:22 pm

    I love this list! There are always fascinating examples of language-specific terminology, like the proverbial Eskimo (Aleut?)’s x-many words for snow.
    I found it interesting when studying Spanish to learn that there were actually enough people who lost one eye (or the use of it) to create a non-compound word to express “one-eyed”: tuerto. Too many duels?!

    Reply
  205. hksche2000 -  March 9, 2011 - 12:19 pm

    Danish “hyggelig” seems to share an etymologic root with english
    “hugging” to express a close, cozy, hugging atmoshere. “Gesellig” (adj.) or “gesellen” (verb) in german, like its dutch cousin, on the other hand, derive from a different root, meaning to join and enjoy the party of other people. This, of course, would be conducive, if not prerequisite, to a “hyggelig” atmosphere. Mardi gras comes to mind.

    Reply
  206. Paula H -  March 9, 2011 - 10:44 am

    I love “tartle” and I want to add it to my vocabulary. Can anyone use it in a sentence so I can learn to use it properly? Thanks.

    Reply
  207. Clifton Palmer McLendon -  March 9, 2011 - 10:27 am

    My favorite hard-to-translate-into-English word is the German word “gemütlich.”

    It loosely translates as “comfortable,” but the sort of comfortable exhibited by a well-lived in house full of people who love you and are glad to see you as you arrive home on a cold, rainy afternoon and as you step inside the warmth surrounds you and you smell soup cooking and you know you don’t have a care in the world.

    Reply
  208. Tom Zychowski -  March 9, 2011 - 10:13 am

    Zajebiste is a Polish word, vulgar in nature simply meaning, the best, awesome.

    Reply
  209. Cat -  March 9, 2011 - 9:48 am

    The Japanese “wabi” means “a flawed detail that creates an elegant whole.” It could also be translated as “that imperfection without which there is no true beauty.”

    From “They have a word for it: a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words” by Howard Rheingold. It’s a wonderful book, one of my favorites for years.

    Reply
  210. Lavinia -  March 9, 2011 - 9:38 am

    I can elucidate a little on the dutch word ‘gezellig’. It is the one word that I have had to spend quite some time explaining to my partner. Gezellig can indeed mean cozy, although the english version is usually associated with how an interior looks, whereas in dutch it can be the interior, or it can be the ambiance. You can also describe a place as gezellig, or even a person. I have no idea how to say in ennglish that a person is gezellig…!

    Reply
  211. Cynthia -  March 9, 2011 - 8:15 am

    Tartle !!!! Perfect! My best friend and I have a system down. If we run into someone I know, but do not recall their name, and I do not introduce my friend and the unknown-named associate, my friend after a short time will speak up and say, “My friend is so rude not to introduce us. My name is ….” The other person will usually speak up and offer the name. (Vice versa)

    Now we have the word for the occasion. Guarantee I will look to use this word in the next scrabble game!

    Thanks for the list!

    Reply
  212. Mandy -  March 9, 2011 - 8:15 am

    I’m an English Jew, and grew up hearing many Yiddish words that have no English equivalent. One of my favourites is “Clafty”, (sorry, I don’t know the correct spelling), that means an old woman without style. It can also be an adjective, such as “that is a clafty dress”, meaning “that is a dress that an old woman with no style would wear”.
    Two others are “shikser” and “baitsky” (again, my spellings will be wrong) which I think both mean the same thing – none Jewish girls who happen to be going out with Jewish men. I believe the tone is derogatory so I doubt they are used much in these politically correct times.

    Reply
  213. Cecilia -  March 9, 2011 - 7:49 am

    Cafuné is the Spanish mexican equivalent to “hacer piojito” literally: to make little lice. LOL

    Reply
  214. Kate -  March 9, 2011 - 7:37 am

    Loved this!

    Reply
  215. Lara -  March 9, 2011 - 7:36 am

    I would suggest the Spanish word “salero”;
    the brazilian/ african derived Portuguese word “axé”.

    Reply
  216. Vishal -  March 9, 2011 - 7:33 am

    How about ‘mamihlapinatapai’?

    Reply
  217. brian -  March 9, 2011 - 7:22 am

    i’ve always hated the word ‘gobbledygook.’ not sure why. too many syllables perhaps?

    Reply
  218. Prestoyo -  March 9, 2011 - 7:20 am

    I think the hardest language to translate is text speech (ttyl, brb, fubr) Those are just three of thousands, the reason I elect this as the hardest to decipher is that text speech is always changing minute by minute and also differs between different countries to where certain abreviations stand for differet things. Also text speech can have multiple meanings depending on the tone of conversation subjects talking to and the subkect of the conversation itself.

    Reply
  219. Clint -  March 9, 2011 - 7:10 am

    “Dronk verdriet” is a South African slang term which describes the melancholy state people reach when they’ve had too much to drink.
    Example (true example): A woman crying in a pub. Her mates can’t figure out what it is she’s crying about. Someone says, “Ag leave her man, she’s just dronk verdriet.” I think it literally translates as “drunk sad”. I don’t know of an English equivalent.

    Reply
  220. Joe -  March 9, 2011 - 6:52 am

    tenalach is a great Irish word that even many Irish don’t know– it’s a word they have in the hills and mountains in the west of Ireland and it means a relationship one has with the land/air/water, a deep connection that allows one to literally hear the earth singing…spellings with vary….

    Reply
  221. Merk -  March 9, 2011 - 6:35 am

    Back again … the Dutch word is gezellig … cozy, but more

    Reply
  222. Merk -  March 9, 2011 - 6:32 am

    Dutch has some words that are difficult to translate, too.

    Vies is a word similar to dirty … think of ‘fly in the butter’.

    Another is smakelijk, which sort of means tasty.

    Then there is lekker, which implies it is so tasty you’re going back for second helpings even though you are full and don’t need more.

    And finally one that I do not know how to spell … gezelijk … which means cozy, cuddly, comfortable, curled up in front of the fireplace perhaps.

    Reply
  223. JackStoneS -  March 9, 2011 - 6:29 am

    I think the Dutch word ‘gezellig’ is similar to the Danish ‘hyggelig’. It also literally translates to cosy, but it is also used to describe the atmosphere at for example parties or when just hanging out.

    Reply
  224. Richard Durst -  March 9, 2011 - 6:17 am

    I can think of a couple from Japanese: “aitsu” and “nakama.” I’m sure there are others, those are just the first ones to come to mind.

    Then there are words from other languages that, for lack of any easy translation, have just been imported wholesale into English, like “ennui,” and “schadenfreude.”

    Reply
  225. sheila -  March 9, 2011 - 6:09 am

    The English verb “to pine (for)” is a better match for duende than is “nostalgia”. Duende never carries a wistful meaning, like nostalgia can; even melancholy is closer, I think.

    Reply
  226. Tom Joad -  March 9, 2011 - 6:05 am

    I can think of a few, after learning norwegian, the word “jo”.
    What it is, is a postive response to a double-negative question or not just double negative, but…

    In english if someone asks you “don’t you like tea” and you reply “yes” it isn’t clear without a followup what the response meant. “Yes you do, or yes you don’t?” follows.

    In norwegian, an answer “jo” (instead of JA) explicitly tells that “yes, I DO like tea”. Negative response would be the same as “no” (nei).

    Reply
  227. Paul Hirsh -  March 9, 2011 - 5:27 am

    Gobbledygook in French is Charabia

    Reply
  228. Lucifer -  March 9, 2011 - 5:20 am

    Mamihlapinatapai! That’s a hard word to translate. It’s a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin. It’s a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego.

    >>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamihlapinatapai

    Reply
  229. Michael Quinn -  March 9, 2011 - 5:16 am

    ‘Hyggelig’ seems to capture something similar to the Dutch word
    ‘gezellig’, and may in fact have the same root (native speakers, please
    comment!).

    Reply
  230. MAO -  March 9, 2011 - 4:24 am

    Dutch speakers like to assert that their word “gezellig” (~cozy in a comfortable, intimate way) is impossible to translate exactly into English, and that might be true. But “gezellig” is highly likely to be the exact Dutch equivalent of Danish’s “hyggelig” – as well as Hungarian’s “hangulatos,” for that matter.

    Reply
  231. erik -  March 9, 2011 - 4:06 am

    Prozvonit is a Czech word for “dropped call”, in ghana where they also speak english, they call this flashing.

    Reply
  232. Gabriel -  March 8, 2011 - 8:16 pm

    Cafuné is actually not a verb, but a noum. We say “fazer cafuné”, that is, “to do cafuné”.

    Reply
  233. Laura -  March 8, 2011 - 7:58 pm

    What a fantastic list! I’ve always found languages and their interaction fascinating, and some of these words I wish we had available in English. (I experience tartle more often than I care to admit!)

    Reply

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