Some Wonderful Foreign Words with No Equivalent in English

Mental Floss had this delightful story today about 38 foreign words that have no equivalent in the English language, and I’d thought I’d share a few of my favorites with you, with my own comments, in italics.

  • Tartle (Scots): that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t quite remember. I wonder if there’s a word for when you can’t remember the word tartle.
  • Backpfeifengesicht (German): A face badly in need of a fist. If I were a boxer, I would whisper this word into my opponent’s ear just before the fight. Talk about getting the upper hand on someone.
  • Greng-jai (Thai): That feeling you get when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them. I don’t know if I’ve ever had this feeling 🙂
  • Mencolek (Indonesian): You know that old trick where you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them? The Indonesians have a word for it. And here I thought I invented this trick. Or maybe I did, and it just spread around the globe.
  • Gigil (Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute. Such an urge could get you in trouble today.
  • Fremdschämen (German); Myötähäpeä (Finnish): The kinder, gentler cousins of Schadenfreude, both these words mean something akin to “vicarious embarrassment.” I think my wife has experienced this feeling many times on my behalf.
  • Lagom (Swedish): Maybe Goldilocks was Swedish? This slippery little word is hard to define, but means something like, “Not too much, and not too little, but juuuuust right.” I think if anyone ever asks me what my salary is, I’ll just say ‘lagom’.
  • Layogenic (Tagalog): Remember in Clueless when Cher describes someone as “a full-on Monet…from far away, it’s OK, but up close it’s a big old mess”? That’s exactly what this word means. Maybe they could create a new word, ‘Bordengenic‘ – from far away, it’s a big old mess, but up close, well, it’s still a big old mess.
  • Bakku-shan (Japanese): A Japanese slang term, which describes the experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front. I wonder if Shan-bakku would mean just the opposite?
  • Seigneur-terraces (French): Coffee shop dwellers who sit at tables a long time but spend little money. I’ll be on the look out this Spring for the les serveurs  in Paris looking in my direction and whispering this phrase.
  • Zeg (Georgian): It means “the day after tomorrow.” OK, we do have “overmorrow” in English, but when was the last time someone used that? This word will come in really handy when my students ask me when I plan to grade their papers.
  • Cafune (Brazilian Portuguese): Leave it to the Brazilians to come up with a word for “tenderly running your fingers through your lover’s hair.” I wonder if I can I use the same word when I do it to my own hair?
  • Boketto (Japanese): It’s nice to know that the Japanese think enough of the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking to give it a name. I see this look a lot when I teach Accounting.
  • L’esprit de l’escalier (French): Literally, stairwell wit—a too-late retort thought of only after departure. I’ve actually written a blog post about this word, over a year ago. Unfortunately, I am the master of L’esprit de l’escalier.
  • Hygge (Danish): Denmark’s mantra, hygge is the pleasant, genial, and intimate feeling associated with sitting around a fire in the winter with close friends. I assume they mean a fire that is under control. Otherwise I don’t think there would be much hygge.
  • Luftmensch (Yiddish): There are several Yiddish words to describe social misfits. This one is for an impractical dreamer with no business sense. The perfect word to describe me when I owned a personal training studio.
  • Schlemiel and schlimazel (Yiddish): Someone prone to bad luck. Yiddish distinguishes between the schlemiel and schlimazel, whose fates would probably be grouped under those of the klutz in other languages. The schlemiel is the traditional maladroit, who spills his coffee; the schlimazel is the one on whom it’s spilled. So that’s what those words were that Laverne and Shirley were singing at the start of every episode! Now the whole show takes on a different meaning!

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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