Untranslatable: Words Writers Should Know


The English language may be absurd and magical, but it also fails to capture the entire nuance of human experience. Other languages, however, can fill in some of those gaps. Tim Lomas, a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London, has compiled a lists of those words that English lacks. Some of the definitions are ungainly in English, but the meaning behind them is often beautiful and always useful.

You can check out the full list here, and I’ve highlighted some of my favorites below.

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Ah-un (阿吽) (Japanese, n.): unspoken communication between close friends, literally ‘the beginning and ending of something’

Aljerre (Aranda, n.): dreamtime; an ancestral period when the world was created.

S’apprivoiser (French, v.): lit, ‘to tame’, but a mutual process – both sides learning to trust/accept the other.

Curglaff (Scottish, n.): the bracing/shocking/invigorating feeling of suddenly entering (e.g., diving into) cold water.

Erschlossenheit (German, n.): world disclosure; the process by which things become intelligible and meaningfully relevant to human beings.

Gigil (Tagalog, n.): the irresistible urge to pinch/squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished.

Hiraeth (Welsh, n.): longing for one’s homeland, with nostalgia and wistfulness.

Khalas (خالص) (Arabic, n.): something (e.g., a task) that is irrevocably done/over/finished (often with an implication of liberation/deliverance as a result).

Mamihlapinatapei (Yagán, n.): a look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire.

Opia (English, new coinage, n.): the ambiguous intensity of eye-contact.

Pochemuchka (почемучка) (Russian, n.): someone who is always asking questions (perhaps too many!).

Samar (سمر) (Arabic, v.): to sit together in conversation at sunset/ in the evening.

Tjuvsmaka (v.): lit. thief (Tjuv) taste (Smaka); to taste or eat small pieces of food (e.g., when cooking, and/or when you think nobody is watching), cherry-picking the best morsels (rather than to improve the meal).

Xibipíío (Pirahã, n.): experiencing liminality; a phenomenon on the boundaries of perception/experience

Zanshin (残心) (Japanese, n.): a state of relaxed mental alertness (especially in the face of danger or stress).

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The full list is grand, and a word fiend could get lost in it. If you discover a new favorite word from it, feel free to share! Mine may be s’apprivoiser; I like the idea that we can tame each other.


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Tim Lomas, “Provisional Lexicography – By Alphabet”, February 2017, https://media.wix.com/ugd/ce8de8_75e98f78845e46ea9da29b26c35238c0.pdf.

Tim Lomas, “Towards a Positive Cross-Cultural Lexicography: Enriching our Emotional Landscape through 216 ‘Untranslatable’ Words Pertaining to Well-Being,” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11.5 (2016): 546-558, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2015.1127993.

28 thoughts on “Untranslatable: Words Writers Should Know

  1. Thanks for this list. We are fortunate in our home in Minnesota to have three generations. No morning can pass without a ample supply of ( gigil). It warms this ol’ papa to bend down into the world of a four year old.

    On Thu, Feb 23, 2017 at 7:58 AM, Kristen Twardowski wrote:

    > Kristen Twardowski posted: ” The English language may be absurd and > magical, but it also fails to capture the entire nuance of human > experience. Other languages, however, can fill in some of those gaps. Tim > Lomas, a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London, > ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I was just proofing something the other day and had to get into the whole translation to english thing. The author had used a Spanish phrase that literally translated to what she wanted in English but actually meant something entirely different. Lol, there at least 50 Spanish words for nouns in English.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. German is pretty great like that! I’ve found that the most creative swearing in any language seems to come from Hindi, though. I’m not sure why, but for some reason swearing in Hindi is extra creative and extra dirty lol

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The relationship between language and meaning, the art of communication, is fascinating. Things like this are so interesting, and it’s really interesting to think about the idea that one culture felt a need to craft a word for such a meaning, while another culture did not, and what that says about the two cultures. Thank you for sharing.
    The concept of taming as a mutual process of learning really catches my interest. That is in stark contrast with the American concept of dominance over an animal, even to the point of sometimes saying that an animal must be “broken” before it can be trained. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Language is a strange beast. I’ve often wondered to what extent cultures create language vs language create cultures though I’m sure some research has already done on that point. Regardless, words seem to rewire the brain, and that is fascinating.

      Liked by 2 people

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