my favorite foreign words


When I was a kid and an application needed to be filled out in my name that required the listing of all languages spoken, my mother used to always write: American, the Queen’s English, and some French. These days I speak little French, and my Queen’s English is restricted to impressions of my mother or speaking poshly about posh things (sometimes, one in the same). I studied English at school and have made a career of realizing that one tiny little word, as insignificant as it may seem, can have big implications (I was once on a negotiation where both legal teams argued for twenty minutes over the use of the word “shall”); but despite the beauty of the English language, I still have dreams of speaking other languages that pick up where English drops off. The ability to engage in side conversations at key moments without anyone around understanding what me and the person I’m with are talking about, the ability to read foreign texts or see foreign films in their original language–these are the things I dream about. Instead, because I can’t (even the French I studied for all those years doesn’t come back to me in full while I sleep), I fall in love with these foreign words that are untranslatable in English. These single words that translate into complex feelings or sentences that are still so relatable.

Here is a list of my favorite.

saudade (Portuguese) — An intensely deep, emotional state of nostalgic longing for something or someone that you continue to love but have lost, such as a lost lover or a friend who has long since gone.

ilunga (Bantu) — A word which linguists consider to be the most difficult to translate into English but generally means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.”

schuadenfreude (German) — A pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. In his 1852 meditation on language, Study of Words, Richard Chenevix Trench expressed his dislike for this word since “the existence of the word bears testimony to the thing”; but my love of the word has less to do with the calamities of others and more to do with the fact that the Germans have provided us with a single word for a feeling even the best of us sometimes feel. Or maybe I’m a terrible person, but at least the Germans “get” me.

backpfeifengesicht (German) — Speaking of which, the Germans also gave us this beauty, which means “a face that desperately wants to be punched.”

esprit de l’escalier (French) — This phrase is literally translated as “the spirit of the stairs” because it comes from the feeling of having thought of the perfect comeback for a joke or an insult only once one has walked away and reached the bottom of the stairs, all too late.

hygge (Danish) — I was introduced to this one by my best friend Eric who used it to describe an evening he spent with me and my family. It is a fundamental aspect of Danish culture and means “relaxing with good friends or loved ones, often while enjoying good food and something to drink or creating a more friendly atmosphere by lighting a few candles.” In other words, it’s the best thing in the world.

Do you have any foreign words you love?

Updated May 5, 2013:

pokazukha (Russian) — “something done just for show”.

tsundoku (Japan) — Buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands.

vergangenheitsbewaltigung (German) — “struggling to come to terms with the past.”

3 thoughts on “my favorite foreign words

  1. I was pleasantly surprised to see hygge. My grandfather was Danish and though I only learned the word later, I came to know its meaning from my father’s tender care with our home and garden. Hygge includes making everything in your home comfortable and “just right”. It is a sense of contentment in company. In fact, hygge is where we get the word hug in English.

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