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Bloggers’ Questions #3

This month’s question isn’t an uncommon one, but it always provides interesting responses and a lot of debate:

What word exists in English that you have found to be missing in whatever other language you speak (or in your native language) or/and what word exists in that other language that is missing in English?

Here are some answers from our bloggers:

There are some great Swedish words that don’t exist in English. Two very practical ones are sambo and särbo. Sambo is the word for a partner you live with and särbo is the word for a partner you don’t live with (i.e. you keep separate homes). In English, partner is so generalised and people have to specify whether they mean a business partner, a dancing partner, a romantic partner, etc. Terms such as girlfriend or boyfriend are very gendered and also sound quite young, while lover seems both more old-fashioned and also a bit awkward. It would be nice if we had words that only referred to a romantic partner.

Another Swedish word I’d like to import is lagom, which means just right. How warm is it today? Lagom. How much coffee should I pour you? Lagom. How much money do you earn? Lagom. It’s not too much, not too little, but just the perfect amount.

B.J. Epstein


In Swedish, I love the verb ‘fika’, which is sort of ‘to have a social
coffee break’. I love that it’s a verb, rather than a noun; breaking
for coffee is something you *do* in Swedish, not something you *have*.
It also usually involves kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls), and you can’t
argue with the fabulousness of that.

But when speaking Swedish (which is all too rare for me these days), I
very much miss the word ‘please’. All the ways to soften requests in
Swedish are grammatically more complex (along the lines of ‘would you
be kind and do this for me?’), so I tend to just add ‘tack’ (‘thanks’)
to requests, which feels a bit presumptuous to me.

Lynne Murphy


One word in German that I’ve always had a real soft spot for is umständlich.

It’s such a useful package –  describing something being a bit tricky, slightly awkward, a tad inconvenient, a little impractical  …. – and all in a way that doesn’t have any negative overtones, you can pop it into a conversation anywhere. There’s no adjective that quite does that job in English.

Kerry Maxwell


I’m very fond of the Irish phrase mar dhea, literally “as were it” and variously anglicised as moryah, moya, muryaa, mara-ya, and so on. It’s a sceptical interjection, sometimes (unhelpfully) translated as forsooth but closer in meaning to a dubious or derisive supposedly or As if! It occurs commonly in Irish and Hiberno-English speech and literature. I wrote about mar dhea/moryah in more detail on my own blog recently.

Stan Carey



A very English concept.

Adam Kilgariff


Tarof (Farsi)

Anyone who has spent any time around Iranians will have come across both the Farsi word tarof, and the cultural habits it embodies. As I understand it, tarof is a complicated and elaborate system of good manners which entails, among other things, repeatedly pressing food and drink on your guests if you are a host, and repeatedly refusing the offer only to succumb gracefully in the end if you are a guest. For those raised in the “thanks but I’ve had enough” culture of the UK it takes some getting used to, but it’s an expression of the warmth and generosity of the Iranian people and as such I’ve come to love it, even while finding it slightly exasperating.

Liz Potter


załatwić (Polish)

I remember, when I visited Poland in the 1980s, going into food shops and being met by the grim sight of shelves of vinegar and mustard and not much else, but then going into people’s homes and being greeted by tables laden with all manner of food and drink. The key to this paradox is in the word ‘załatwić’.
It’s a transitive verb derived from the adjective ‘łatwy’ (= easy) and its basic meanings roam across the territories of fix, arrange, organise, accomplish, do, deal with, handle, take care of, settle, dispose of …..
But it’s also used as an economical way of referring to the art of gaining unofficial access to goods or services which are otherwise unavailable, or at least difficult to get hold of.
This sense of ‘załatwić’ probably had its heyday in the communist era, when its grammatical objects might include such objects of desire as tickets to events, spare parts for your car, a job, a flat, a plumber ….. not to mention food and drink or clothing that wasn’t available through official channels. But it’s still very much in use, and the concept is probably timeless and universal.
It’s often accompanied by the adverbial expression ‘po znajomości’ (= through somebody I/we/you/they know) and of course the assumption is that if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – we’re all in this together, it’s us against them – so there’s a conceptual link with the iconic Polish word ‘solidarność’ (= solidarity), which achieved fame in 1980 as the name of the first independent trade union in a communist-governed country. And here, by the way, is another yawning lexical gap in English: ‘solidarność’ is part of a complete, happy word family including adjective, adverb and verb forms, while in English only the noun is in general use.

Jonathan Marks


Inshallah (or Insha’Allah)

I was in Algeria last week and (not for the first time) I noticed how important this word is in Arabic and Islamic culture. This is a transliteration of the Arabic إن شاء الله , and means of course ‘God willing’. It comes up in expressions like ‘I’ll be coming to a conference in the UK next month, Inshallah’. OK, so there is not exactly a lexical gap in English, but  ‘God willing’   – though similar in its literal meaning – is not a true equivalent in terms of its cultural importance.  ‘God willing’ is  not at all frequent and it’s mostly used quite casually, as a sort of filler. By contrast,  in places like Algeria, Inshallah can be guaranteed to appear several times in every conversation, and the concept it encodes is deeply embedded in the way people think. In our corpus, we have  just over 400 instances of the expression ‘God willing’ – but almost 150 ‘Inshallahs’, which is pretty striking considering this is a corpus of English. Examples include: “In 2008, inshallah , he will have a little brother or sister.” ” Inshallah you’ll have fun during these two years and most importantly achieve great results”. I would love to know its frequency in a corpus of Arabic.

Michael Rundell

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Laine Redpath Cole


  • 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!

  • 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.

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