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19 Comments

  • the greek word φιλότιμο(philotimo) which has no equivalent in any other language. It describes a unique set of virtues and moral principles related to dignity, respect, gratitude, pride, loyalty etc., that should characterise every person’s behaviour and way of life. I think that wikipedia explains it better than me, but it’s literally an untranslatable word! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philotimo

  • desenrascar (Portuguese) – Solving a situation at the last minute. (The word has other meanings, but that’s the one that English doesn’t have a word for. There’s an equivalent expression in English that is “To pull a MacGyver”, but I think it would be nicer to have a word of its own)

  • The Portuguese word “saudade” does not exist in English. “Saudade” means melancholy feeling due to the removal of a person, thing or place, or the lack of pleasurable experiences already lived. Another word would be the word “namorar” in Portuguese means that two people have a love relationship or a continuous period of time. que t edições

  • How about the word “ASYMPTOTIC” for which there appears to be no synonym in any language. The famous mathematical philosopher Karl Fredrick Gauss’ diabolically tantalizing stipulation that the elementary algebra fundamental “asymptotic infinity” is a reality parameter as a management property of the entire Universe as humans have identified it. It appears to be uniquely incapable of any unambiguous human language processing.

  • Just a few thoughts on this nice piece from Laine et al. I suppose ‘OK’ is the most obvious English (albeit US English) word that does not seem to exist in other languages, which is probably why a lot of them have adopted this word.

    I agree with Michael about the importance of ‘Inshallah’ and I also love the German word ‘shadenfraude’ quite commonly used in English because we don’t have anything quite as good. I suppose this ‘cross- adoption’ of words is one of the best tests of whether a word had a direct translation in another language and of course, English is littered with such words – ‘weekend’, ‘picnic’ etc and who could forget George Bush Jnr’s gaffe of ‘The French have no word for entrepreneur’ – says it all really.

  • I live with Spanish speakers. “picante” helps disambiguate what is meant when you describe “hot” food in English. It can mean either temperature or too spicy. Picante burns your tongue chemically and is not quite either of the above.

  • The Chinese word “意思意思” carries a special meaning that does not exit in the English language or many other languages. Sometimes people use this word when they are trying to offer money to a government officer/a person in a position in order to bride this person. And it can literally means:”This is something I want to give you to express my deepest gratitude to you.” More interestingly, the receiver(officer) can also reply by using this word as in “Oh,that’s too nice, how can I 意思意思 accept it. “(While they would accept the money finally.)
    The English word “sex” is not easy to express in Chinese. In Chinese, people rarely use this word. Sometimes I think it’s hard to find an appropriate word in Chinese that can express as much comfortably as English does.

  • In German, the word “doch” is handy in many ways, but the best example is how it can be used to answer a question — it refutes any negative or positive question put to the speaker. It’s like a third option after yes or no, to better clarify the answer. Take a negative question such as “Don’t you have a bicycle?” that invites a possibly confusing answer. In this case a simple “doch!” does all the work of stressing that you do indeed have a bicycle. The closest thing in English might be “on the contrary,” but it’s clunky and no one uses it outside of historical dramas.

    By confirming the opposite with this one word, it’s also great for a non-native speaker who doesn’t want to recreate some of the question for the answer.

  • In Spanish, the problem of what to call the father of my daughter’s husband — her father-in-law — is greatly simplified. He is my “consuegro”, and I am his. His wife is my “consuegra”. (“Suegro” is “father-in-law”.)

  • The German language has a word for everything and I always find it funny when there simply isn’t a word in English!! My all-time favourite German word has to be “Vorfreude” – (Joy-before) which is so much more than anticipation. It is really the JOY one feels BEFORE something happens. This word really reveals its value in the old German saying “Die Vorfreude ist die groesste Freude!” or “Pre-joy is the greatest joy!”. In German I really think they are missing the word “counter top”, “counter” or “cupboard”. “Go put it on the counter” or “Where is it?” “On the cupboard.” In German we just do not say this. There is the word “Liegeflaeche” (Laying surface) but this just sounds weird.

  • I like the idea of “pesado” in Spanish. It doesn’t seem to have a literal translation into English and, I think, as such is used by a lot of English-speakers in their English conversation. It literally translates as “heavy” but colloquially means pain in the neck or difficult, and is also oftern used for children (and adults) who are whining about something, nagging, etc.

  • In Spanish they don’t have a word for kettle. They usually say the equivalent of ‘teapot’ and if you point out that a teapot is the place where you brew the tea, they say the equivalent of ‘water heater’. I’m covinced it is related to not being a tea-drinking culture. The water for coffee is heated within the ‘cafetera’ coffee pot where the coffee is made – no need for a kettle – and in fact the object is not common in Spanish-speaking countries.

  • I always have a problem when trying to explain in English two very simple Polish words: “przyjaciółka” i.e. my best friend – a woman, and “przyjaciel” – my best friend a man. A “girlfriend” and a “boyfriend” are not vey adequate, are they?

  • There are lots of English words that don’t have a Spanish counterpart and vice-versa. This is usually due to cultural differences, as pointed out by Sean Mitchell. If something doesn’t exist in a community, they don’t talk about it and so there’s no need for a word to refer to it. Of course, globalization is changing all this.
    My examples:
    > ‘commuting’: ir y volver del trabajo? (Many of us commute, but not as much as Americans)
    > ‘soccer mom’: first you’d have to explain what a ‘stay-at-home mom’ is and then move on to ‘soccer mom’. The word ‘suburbs’ would have to be discussed to make it all more clear.
    >’bride & groom’: I find it sad that we don’t have special words for the special day. We use ‘novia & novio’ when a couple is dating (‘girlfriend & boyfriend’ in English) as well as for the wedding day. Also, our words for ‘fiancé(e)’ (‘prometida/o’) have fallen out of use. You would sound very old-fashioned if you used them.

    >

  • I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with Sean Mitchell in that there’s no word for kettle in Spanish. At least, that doesn’t apply to all Spanish speaking countries. In Argentina, we have a “pava”, which would be a kind of teapot that can be heated, and we use it a lot to heat water, either for tea, coffee or “mate”.

  • Serbian word “slava/krsna slava” cannot be translated into any other language because it refers to the tradition that only Serbs have. It is the celebration of the family’s patron saint. In the morning of that very day, the family go to church to have their ,,slavski kolač” (round bread specially made and decorated for this occasion; there is a coin and some other objects inside it) made sacred by the priest. Then follows the lunch where all the family and friends are gathered.

  • And in Russian sambo is an abbreviation for a kind of wrestling sport developed by a Russian athlete and coach back in 1930ies from various ethnic wrestling traditions of peoples of Russia. It stands for samooborona bez oruzhia – self-defence without armaments. It has been taught to the police, among others. Russian sambo and the Swedish word of the same name are interlingual homonyms, or translator’s false friends.