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Have you ever thought about a friend across the country because you see something that reminds you of her, and when clicking onto her Facebook profile to leave her a message, learn the most perfect word you never knew:

Mamihlapinatapai: (from Yaghan) “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start.”

Looking up the meaning brought me to an old NPR article on untranslatable words or concepts, including

  • ilunga (Congo): “a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time.”
  • meraki (Greece): putting something of yourself into what you are doing–when your personality is incorporated into the end product.
  • esprit de I’escalier (France): a great comeback that only occurs to you after the fact.

What are your favourite words that have no equivalent in another language?  Your favourite English words that perfectly encapsulate their definition?  Words you wish existed?


1 Heather { 07.28.10 at 8:50 am }

Here in the South, it is inappropriate for a “lady” to cuss in public, so the most common “cuss word” is: DadGumIt.

I wish there was a word for the emotion—you know, when you can’t decide if you’re going to laugh or cry. There’s just no word for that.

2 Katie { 07.28.10 at 9:02 am }

Shitastic. Shitty and fantastic, all in one!

3 Gail K. { 07.28.10 at 9:21 am }

I like the Yiddish word “kavetch”. It means to complain and it rhymes with witch.

I also like the German word “schadenfreude” which is taking pleasure in other people’s misery. It fits in with infertility really well, especially when pregnant friends are complaining about morning sickness or feet swelling or other symptoms that I would cut off my left arm to experience.

4 Genevieve { 07.28.10 at 9:27 am }

It’s not a word, but a phrase…my Herero name given to me while in Namibia: kakunandunda kai kayora. It was hard to get an exact translation, but essentially, “wherever you go you will be safe” or “there will be happiness” or “you will be happy”. Basically, it is a blessing of well being…

5 Jendeis { 07.28.10 at 9:36 am }

In German, “l’esprit d’escalier” is “treppenwitz.” I always thought this sounded more like that “Damn! This is what I should’ve said”-feeling more than the French.

6 one-hit_wonder { 07.28.10 at 10:07 am }

a word for when you simultaneously cry and laugh

7 PaleMother { 07.28.10 at 11:02 am }

I wish there was a word for:

Gifts no one wants from someone who expect to be praised for it; faux generosity. Stuff that clutters your house and instead of being useful actually makes work for you in order to be rid of it.

I like the words frienemy (frenemy?). And schadenfruede.

I would like a word for someone who brings out the worst in you, but never gets the rap for it. (It seems like the French must have a word for this already. Maybe I just don’t know about it.)

8 serenity { 07.28.10 at 11:09 am }

My favorite word in the english language which sums up my emotions exactly is “Meh.” It might not even BE a word, but I use it well, and often.

I wish there was a word that existed which captured that feeling of empathy. When your heart constricts and then swells upon hearing that someone you know is going through a really rough time ; and you wish you could say something more than “I’m so sorry” or “hugs” or “that sucks.”

9 a { 07.28.10 at 11:21 am }

Oh, PaleMother, do you live inside my head? Faux generosity…

10 Kir { 07.28.10 at 11:48 am }

personally I like Oye..or Oy…how do you say it???
I use it all time…it is a word? But it sums up my whole life lately, like “just throwing up my hands and enjoying the ride”

11 Janey { 07.28.10 at 1:34 pm }

I’d love there to be a word for the feeling when you look at someone close to you, know exactly what they’re thinking, both smile but neither says anything. Thanks for a great post to end my first ever week of ICLW commenting!

12 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.28.10 at 6:01 pm }

“Meh” always makes me think of Chicklet.

In Japanese, wa means something like harmony or peace where individuals form a group.


In Arabic, insha’llah means “G*d willing,” but it also seems to encapsulate the AA creed: asking for courage to change what one can, serenity to accept what one can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Love these new words I’m learning here. Blogging is very meraki-ish.

13 Gabi { 07.28.10 at 6:31 pm }

I have always loved the italian verb: “sgattaiolare via.” It means to quickly scramble away like a scared cat.

But I think on of the most useful, untranslatable words I know is “sfruttare.” When I lived in Italy, the director of our program would constantly tell us to “sfruttare” the experience. It basically means to take advantage of, but in a positive, relishing sense. Sort of like combining the idea of milking something for all its worth and how you feel the last day of summer camp.

Happy ICLW!

14 Stephanie { 07.28.10 at 6:38 pm }

How ’bout this one ladies? My husband uses this one.
Travishamockery which is of course a travesty+a sham+ and a mockery all on one. He used it, and forgive me if it offends, in the context of the “octomom.”

15 NotTheMama { 07.28.10 at 10:22 pm }

I need a word for someone who looks you in the face and says, “I got you this at a yard sale, even thought I know you don’t like it. It would look perfect in your spare bedroom!” You know, a word besides mother-in-law! 😉

16 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 07.28.10 at 11:56 pm }

My favorite is a Japanese word (specific to Okinawa), hara hachi bu. It means you eat until you are 80% full.

Not that I practice it, but I like the idea.

17 PaleMother { 07.29.10 at 7:27 am }

Ouch. How about a word for an honest mistake that you will never convince anyone is not raw stupiditiy/ignorance instead.

“schadenfruede” … I swear it was a typo.

18 m. { 07.29.10 at 8:41 am }

Schadenfruede is an old favorite, but I love the new ones people have shared here, as well as the words we wished we had.

Serenity, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted that word – the one you want to leave for someone who’s heart is aching so badly, and its an ache you know too, and all you can say is “hugs” or something equally insufficient. I wish there were a word to convey that shared feeling and desire to comfort, soothe, sit with.

And PaleMother, if you invent a word for faux generosity, I will personally lobby to get it added to the dictionary.

And what about a word for the emotion that you described, Mel? The thing that brought you to your new discovery. That instant urge which brings a good friend to mind immediately, one so strong that you have to reach out and find them, if only to tell them you are thinking of them? I think that would be a lovely word.

19 Murrday { 07.30.10 at 4:48 pm }

Well, lacking a word, we invent! I think Fauxrosity for false generosity
would work fine. What do you all think?

20 Wendy { 07.31.10 at 12:04 am }

Saudade. Brazilian Portuguese, pronounced “Sow-DAH-jee”, and there’s no real English equivalent, but it means, roughly, “thinking about the past (or a farawawy place or person) and simultaneously longing for it in a painful way while enjoying all of the good memories and feelings associated with that time.”

Great question, btw! 🙂

21 loribeth { 08.03.10 at 11:47 am }

I was just in Minnesota & bought a mug that says “uff da” on it. It reminded of my grandmother, who used that phrase all the time. Kind of the Scandinavian version of “oy vey,” lol.

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