diplomatic language services blog post about words that have no English equivalent

Words That Have No English Equivalent

We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”—James D. Nicoll

If English is your second language, you probably know what it’s like to be speaking and suddenly want to switch to your native language when the idea you want to express just doesn’t work as well in English. (“If only I could tell you in Romanian!”)

Sometimes, f you’re lucky, that fitting word or phrase will become conventionalized and officially borrowed by English speakers. More specifically, those who have also come to realize that there’s no better substitute. Take schadenfreude, for example. It perfectly illustrates this idea of getting enjoyment out of others’ troubles and English falls short.

And since English doesn’t have an academy restricting the influx of loan words, we have the luxury of being able to acquire prime specimens from other languages. So with that in mind, I decided to canvass the halls of DLS (a.k.a., rifle the pockets of its employees) in search of lexical gems. I now present our very own DLS word wish list.

O mame – Twi

When Sam finishes a delicious and filling meal, he likes to lean back and say, “O mame” (Twi). Unlike us Americans, who often express guilt after eating a lot, Sam says this word conveys deep contentment. It can also work in response to someone offering you more food when you are happily full and wish to decline. And the giver, Sam says, will not be offended. This happy eating attitude sounds pretty healthy to me.

Dil Pashoori – Urdu

A couple of weeks ago, Anum and her husband decided to go out on a Friday night and wound up at a tea shop. Anum had been craving Kung Fu tea for about a week, and as she was sipping her tea, her husband aptly pointed out, “You got some ‘dil pashoori,’ didn’t you?” This Urdu phrase means that you are getting the desire of your heart. It’s almost like the English expression “hit the spot,” but there’s the added nuance that one has had this longing for a period of time and is finally able to enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be just with food, either. It can be used with anything you’ve been wishing for: spending time with someone, enjoying a specific experience, etc. I even asked Anum yesterday what her “dil pashoori” was at the moment, and she replied quickly and definitively, “Sleep.”

Chun we qiu dong – Chinese

The weather is beginning to warm up as spring gets underway, and many people are pulling out their summer clothes. But if a breeze comes by and causes you to say something about how chilly it is, you may hear Cecilia say, “Chun we qiu dong”. It’s a Chinese expression that means to wrap yourself up and speakers mostly use it for the transition from winter to spring. The same expression can also be used when the weather is changing from summer to fall and is then an invitation for someone to cool their body down. Celia says it’s a way of reminding people that the weather has not completely changed yet. Though it may feel warm outside right now, the earth is still cool underneath us and we need to go with the flow of nature.

Mendokusai – Japanese

Pica misses the ease and efficiency of the term “mendokusai” in Japanese. Literally meaning “stinks of trouble,” this word expresses the idea “I can’t be bothered.” Filling out paperwork is mendokusai: “Why do I have to do this? It’s not worth it.” Taking a shower can be mendokusai: “I have no time today; I don’t want to put myself through the trouble.”

Another Japanese word with some good nuanced meaning is “bimyou,” the characters of which literally translate to “a bit, slightly strange.” Originally meaning “delicate, subtle, or fine,” it has been transformed into a slang term to describe something that is mediocre or somehow off a bit. “Iffy,” “tricky,” “questionable,” and “sensitive” are all alternative English words that could attach to the multi-functional bimyou. “The movie I saw today was bimyou” (mediocre). “This drink tastes bimyou” (kind of off, not so great).

Bimyou could also be appropriate when you want to take a neutral stance on something or if you want to respond with a soft or hazy no. For example, if someone asked if you like the food, you could use bimyou to mean anything from really bad to just normal. Pica noted that this reveals a bit about Japanese culture. She says, “Japanese can be very subversive in that way . . . You can be intentionally vague to be polite and no one will push you for further answers.”

Ssomtanunsaie – Korean

While watching a Korean drama the other day, Mindy was pleased to find a particular word that expressed a state in a romantic relationship that we don’t have a word for in English. “Ssomtanunsaie” is loosely translated in English as the “flirting stage,” but it is more of the feeling you have when you want to get to know someone better because you think there’s something (literally where the “ssom” comes from) there but you’re not sure if it’s going to work out. It’s a time where you’re unsure of things, and there’s usually a bit of game-playing going on. Go-Eun Chae, a member of our Korean team, poignantly summed it up as a “silent but polite ego battle.”

Simpatico – Italian

When talking with our Italian Simonas, I was impressed with the variety of meanings attached to a solitary Italian word. The word “simpatico” is an adjective that describes the kind of person you want to have at your party. “Nice” is part of it but doesn’t fully cover it. It can be a person who has the ability to make people feel comfortable or a person who makes you laugh. It can be a person who is different, but who stands out in a good way—someone who might be described as a “character.” It expresses a specific good quality a person has and can change depending on the person discussed. The specific meaning can be understood by the context.

Realizing that simpatico is a pretty special person, I asked the Simonas if this adjective was used only rarely. Oh no, they said, it’s quite the opposite. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me that Italians are regularly finding themselves surrounded by wonderfully dynamic people.

Wasta – Arabic

While living in Kuwait, Clay was introduced to the Arabic term “wasta,” which denotes “one’s power and influence through connections.” Enlisting wasta is a strategy widely used throughout the Gulf countries. Clay saw it put to use when his and his coworkers’ jobs were suddenly on the line. The team leader, ready to put a plan into action, asked, “Does anyone have any wasta?” One of the team members then piped up, “Yes, I’ll talk to my family friend. He’s got a lot of wasta.” And this is a perfectly acceptable way of doing things there. Clay noticed that young people in Kuwait were getting frustrated with it and would say things like, “No one is getting any jobs because of wasta”. Or, “It’s only the unqualified people who are getting jobs because of wasta.”

Kolay Gelsin – Turkish

Evidently, Turkey is oozing politeness. It turns out that Turkish has a surplus of friendly phrases that make for a pretty chummy atmosphere across the country. You may be walking down the street, for example, and notice a construction worker pounding at the pavement. It would be natural at this point to say to him/her, “Kolay Gelsin,” which means “may it come easily.” You are essentially wishing on your neighbor that their labor will be less burdensome.

“Gecmis Olsun” is another polite expression that means “may it soon pass.” You can wish it on anyone going through any kind of difficulty, ranging from a serious illness or personal tragedy to something as simple as a bite of overly spicy food.

“Afiyet Olsun” is Turkey’s “bon appetit,” and speakers use it in abundance. It’s so widely used that it would be strange if you didn’t say it for every eating-related activity. As Clay says, “Turks love their contextual pleasantries.”

I ni ce – Bambara

And speaking of “bon appetit,” we have Abdou to thank for keeping it alive for us on the 4th floor. He is equally good at gracious gastronomic exchanges in Burkino Faso, where he would say, “I ni ce” (Bambara) to thank someone for a meal they’ve made for him. That person would then reply, “Ka sumaya i kono.” It literally means “May the food be fresh in your belly,” and is a way of wishing good digestion on someone.

Smotriny – Russian

Leftover from a ritualistic tradition, the Russian term “smotriny” refers to the event when a potential suitor is “meeting the parents.” In the past, couples would arrange a time for the bride’s prospective in-laws to assess and evaluate the match, part of which would involve making sure the economic arrangements were agreeable to both parties. Nowadays, people use this term in a fun, teasing way when someone is meeting their significant other’s family.

Abgemacht – German

Katia also expressed a desire to use the German word “abgemacht” in English because it has such a strong sense of finality. You would use this word when you’re agreeing to something and would say in English, “Deal,” or “Consider it done,” or “I can do it”. However, the present perfect tense of ‘abgemacht’ makes it sound like the task has already been complete. So, there is a lot more force in your assent when you agree to something with this German word.

Jein – German

“Jein” is a word Carrie likes to use that was formed by combining the German words “ja” (yes) and “nein” (no). Where the English phrase “yes and no” suggests that two concrete opposites are battling each other, jein fits in the middle of the two and means both yes and no at the same time. There’s little or no sense of conflict or indecision. For example, you ask your friend if she’s looking forward to an upcoming family vacation. She might answer with an immediate ‘jein’ and explain that she’s excited to see Rome for the first time. However, she is also dreading being around her obnoxious uncle Markus. Both of those feelings are the realities of a situation that she has mostly resigned to. The trip is both exciting and worthy of dread, and neither of those conditions are likely to change.

You can also use jein when something squeaks by on a technicality. Say someone asks you, “Have you ever been to England?” Your answer would be jein if you had had a layover at Heathrow airport while en route to Switzerland and were officially in the country for an hour but never got out to see it. Yes technically, but not truly, so . . . jein.

Mi-e dor – Romanian

In Romanian, “Mi-e dor” is a term that expresses a longing for something. Its construction conveys a feeling more profound than such English words as “miss,” “wish,” or “desire”. In Romanian, it should be used as you would express a basic need, such as “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired”. In this way, it deepens that feeling of longing. It’s not just something you want—it’s something you need to survive. Raluca, for her part, experiences mi-e dor for speaking her language regularly. “There’s a part of yourself that’s attached to using your language,” she says. “It expresses who you are.”

I felt an excitement and passion that was contagious when speaking with Raluca, and everyone else who let me pick their language pockets. I also became fascinated with the words we were discussing and especially the meanings they conveyed. It felt like my mind was opening to new ways of thinking.

I’m not alone in this feeling. An ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes, said, “By words the mind is winged”. A Mandarin Chinese proverb states: “To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.”

And now that I have these new ideas, I find myself wanting to use these new foreign words. (“Dil pashoori” and “mendokusai” have slipped out of my mouth more than once.) And it causes me to question, “What else am I missing?” I feel sure that there are better words out there for meanings I want to convey, and this experience has whetted my appetite for them. As much as I love English, and as colorful as it is, it just doesn’t always fit the bill. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, “The limits of my language are the limits of my universe.” Another reason to open the door to other language realms and have a look around. What curios are to be found there?

By Leigh Brown

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