It’s no secret that language and culture are inextricably connected. We can learn so much about a society’s cultural norms and ideals through its language alone – which is one of many reasons why I love learning languages.
Take the English word “workaholic”, for instance. This word, unique to the English language (and invented by an American, named Wayne Oats), is exemplary of the fact that Americans tend to work compulsively – and the fact that a mind-boggling 41% of the U.S. population didn’t take a single vacation day in 2015. Just one word can reveal a great deal about American society and cultural ideals.
Think about the word “PDA” (public display of affection), another commonly used English (or at least American) word that speaks volumes about how prudist American society is. The fact that we have invented an expression/acronym for displaying affection in public implies that it is something out of the ordinary. Whereas for Brazilians, French, Spanish, Italians…there is no word for “PDA” because this behavior is simply the norm (go to any of these places and you will see what I mean…).
Now, here are some of my favorite words that don’t seem to have a direct English translation – many of them can explain a lot about the culture and country from which they were derived.
Abbiocco (noun, Italian): Italian food is delicious, but it also tends to be very rich and heavy, triggering sleepiness in those who feast on it. Given the sacred role of food in Italian society, it makes sense then that Italians have a word specifically devoted to this very drowsiness that comes after eating a large meal: Abbiocco.
Apaixonar (verb, Portuguese): Somewhere between to like and to love, apaixonar is the Portuguese verb that defines those incredibly strong feelings of infatuation that you have for someone that you really like (but might not be completely in love with just yet).
Apericena (noun, Italian): A take on the word “aperitivo”, apericena is a relatively new development in Italy and a likely result of the nation’s economic crisis. It refers to a buffet of hot and cold appetizers that accompany drinks – all which generally cost under 10 euro. Can we introduce that trend here?
bouquiner (verb, French): The French take their reading quite seriously. This is evidenced by the fact that, while bookstores are dying out around the rest of the world (:(), they are staying afloat in France. While the U.S. only has one, France has multiple organizations designed to support independent booksellers and the French government has actually enacted several laws to protect bookstores from dying out (the Lang Law is one, which prohibits online services from offering free delivery). My own personal experience can attest to this – while living in France, I rarely (if ever) saw people reading from kindles or iPads – they always seemed to be reading print books. Given the love that the French have for reading, old-school style, it makes sense that they have an even more specific word for “read” (which is “lire” in French). “Bouquiner” is a verb which means to get lost in a book, often one that is old or special edition.
Bon courage (French): This expression is used commonly in France. Directly translated, it means “have good courage” – it’s closest English equivalent is “good luck” – but, the French have an expression for “good luck”, as well (“bonne chance”). Here is the difference: “Bonne chance” suggests that the person will succeed or fail due to factors out of their control, while “bon courage”implies that success will come about due to the person’s strength and tenacity. “Bon courage” suggests some sort of difficulty, however big or small, that one has to overcome. For instance, it’s often used in work settings. If you are say, leaving work and want to wish your colleague the energy to finish their work and get through the rest of the day, you might say “Bon courage!” while leaving. You would not say “Bonne chance”.
botellón (noun, Spanish): Directly translating to “big bottle”, this word describes the act of a group of people (generally young) joining together in public, open-air spaces (like streets, plazas and parks) to socialize and drink alcohol. Think: street parties. The word is so ingrained in Spanish youth culture that stores even sell kits with mixers and plastic cups. If only it were actually legal to drink in public areas in the U.S. and we might have invented a word for this too…sigh.
cavoli riscaldati (noun, Italian): literally translating to “reheated cabbage”, this is the expression that Italians use to describe an attempt to revive a failed relationship.
cafuné (noun, Brazilian Portuguese): Brazilians are an affectionate bunch. They even have a word to describe the act of tenderly running fingers through someone else’s hair (ie: fazer um cafuné).
fernweh (noun, German): This is one word that I can definitely identify with. Fernweh is a longing to travel/missing a place you have never been (similar to “wanderlust”but fernweh is more of a need than a want).
dépaysement (noun, French): A very popular word that alludes to the homesickness, disorientation and culture shock that comes from not being in your home country.
dolce far niente (Italian): This is one of my all-time favorite expressions. Unlike many Americans, who feel the need to stay busy all the time (I am guilty of being one of those), Italians don’t feel bad about not doing anything. Au contraire – literally translating to “the sweetness of nothing”, this lovely expression refers to the simple relaxation and pleasure (not stress and guilt) that comes from doing absolutely nothing.
estadounidense (noun, Spanish): Since “American” is not the globally PC word to define someone who is from the U.S., our Latin American counterparts have come up with one that is: estadounidense. So if you are estadounidense and traveling through South America, say “soy estadounidense” instead of “soy americana” when introducing yourself, and you will avoid confusion and be much better received.
fika (verb/noun, Swedish): Used as both a verb and a noun, this word refers to a coffee break that happens throughout the day–and can sometimes last for hours. It often comes accompanied by pastries and sweets. But Fika is about more than just sipping coffee and munching on pastries – while it can be done alone, fika is essentially about relaxing and enjoying the company of people you are with. It is so much more than just a coffee break – in Sweden, it refers to a way of life. Let’s just say that the Swedes know how to really enjoy a coffee.
forelsket (noun, Norwegian): the euphoria that comes with falling in love for the first time
flâner (verb, French): To leisurely meander the streets of a city; exploring without a particular destination in mind, for the simple pleasure of soaking in a city’s beauty. This word, as you can probably imagine, was invented in the 19th century by the Parisian literary crowd. What more perfect city to be a flâneur in than Paris?
fremdschämen (noun, German): the empathetic shame one might feel witnessing someone else in an embarassing situation or making a fool of themselves
empêchement (noun, French): a last-minute change of plans – so if you can’t go to meet a friend because something came up, you might say to him/her “Desolée, je peux pas te rejoindre…j’ai un empêchement.” (Sorry I can’t meet you…something else came up).
gezellig (Dutch): This is a word that you are likely to hear a lot in Holland. Gezellig is everything that is homey, cozy, comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable – all at the same time. It is closely tied to the people that you are with and the atmosphere that surrounds you. There must be a connection with the person in order for it to be gazellig. You can have a gazellig conversation with a friend or enjoy a gazellig coffee in the morning.
Gigil (noun, Tagalog): that urge to squeeze someone or something that is irrestisibly adorable
kokusaijin (noun, Japanese): “an international person; someone who is cosmopolitan, flexible and open-minded” (http://www.drtimlomas.com)
l’esprit d’escalier (French): you know when you think of that witty retort after the conversation is over? Happens to me all the time. And apparently it happens enough in France that les français have created an expression for it.
la douleur exquise (French): Perhaps it’s partially due to the melodic language…the delectable food…the beautiful capital city…the forward men…well, pretty much everything – but the French have long held a reputation for being romantics – whether or not that’s the case (this merits a different discussion), they certainly have a plethora of romantic words and expressions in their vocabulary. La douleur exquise is one of them: that heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone who doesn’t want you back.
lagom (noun, Swedish): Coming from a land of extremes, this is another one of my favorite words. Translating to just the right amount/doing everything in moderation, “lagom” is a word that seems to perfectly sum up the Swedish mentality. Unlike the U.S., which is a country of excess and inequality, Sweden is a nation based on moderation and equality. Lagom can be witnessed in everyday life in Sweden: the work-life balance (people work but not too much – unlike in the U.S., working overtime is actually frowned upon in Sweden), gender and social equality (I’d say it comes pretty close to being a classless society), the fact that Swedes are not showy about what they have (you won’t see many massive mansions or Ferraris in Sweden)…If only every country could practice more “lagom”…
malandro (noun, Portuguese): Living in Brazil, I heard this word a lot – but still have a difficult time explaining it in English. Here’s my attempt: a malandro is basically a guy who lives a lifestyle of malandragem (idleness and petty crime) to get by; is generally unfaithful in relationships; and uses his charisma and clever, street-smart ways to manipulate his way to success. The female equivalent would be malandra, but is not as widely used. Generally it has a positive connotation for females – but Dilma might be an exception to that. The malandro relies heavily on the jeitinho brasileiro – another untranslatable expression that refers to the popular Brazilian habit of bypassing rules and disobeying social norms to achieve success. The word malandro is therefore one that is illustrative of Brazilian society as a whole –malandragem and jeitinho brasileiro are deeply ingrained in Brazilian culture, for better or for worse. It’s why, when dining out at restaurants in Brazil, you always have to be on the lookout for mysterious add-ons to your bill…or why, when going to the beach, you cannot take your eyes (or hands) off your belongings for one second, lest they get stolen…or why, when waiting in line somewhere, you have to be weary of those behind you who will subtly cut in front of you…and it’s why many Brazilians have a hard time adjusting to life in the U.S. – a country with admittedly excessive and enforced rules (ugh) for every. little. thing. A country that makes it quite difficult for anyone to be malandro – which also might help explain why this word has no translation in English.
Meriggiare (verb, Italian): the act of escaping the sun by resting in the shade
merendar (verb, Spanish): to have an afternoon snack
mudita (noun, Sanskrit): vicariously living through someone else’s joy/being genuinely happy for other peoples’ joy and success
namorar (verb, Portuguese): I can’t attest to how the Portuguese do it, but after spending some time in Brazil, I realized that Brazilians have a totally different approach than Americans when it comes to dating. In Brazil, if you like someone a lot, you will date him or her exclusively shortly after meeting – simple as that. None of this are we or aren’t we a couple? ambivalence and hesitation that is the norm in the US. They also have a much easier way to define dating someone exclusively: Namorar.
Não falta vontade (Br. Portuguese) (literally: Will is not missing): This roughly translates to “trust me…I want to!”
orka (verb, Swedish): being too tired or lazy to do something
profiter (verb, French) This is a word that I love to use. It basically means “to take advantage of” something or a situation (in a good way). You might say to someone “profite bien de tes vacances!” (take advantage/make the most of your vacation). Or you can keep it simple and just say “profite!”
retrouvailles (noun, French): that sheer joy of being reuinted with someone you haven’t seen in a while
saideira (noun, Portuguese): a last drink before leaving
saudade (noun, Portuguese): One of the most popular words in the Portuguese language, saudade is a nostalgia and longing for someone or something that is no longer there or no longer exists (ex: Eu tenho muito saudades de você – I really miss you. More colliqual use would be: Saudades de você).
seigneur-terrace (noun, French): I am guilty of being one of these. This is the term that is used to refer to people who go to cafes and stay there for a long time without spending much money.
sisu (noun, Finnish): the psychological strength and determination required to overcome immense challenges
sobremesa (noun, Spanish): In the US, going out to eat generally consists of ordering food, eating, paying the check and leaving. Because the US is a consumerist society and since waiters live off of tips, restaurants generally try to get as much turnover as possible (which is why waiters ask you about a million times how the food is and will generally rush customers out of the restaurant by handing them the check before they even ask for it). In Spain, you can expect pretty much the exact opposite. It’s considered rude for the waiter to bring the check to the table unsolicited. While it’s nearly impossible to get the waiter’s attention, such lack of attention also means that customers don’t have to feel bad about sitting at the table for hours on end. People often stay at the table for hours after eating, just talking. Sobremesa is that time post-meal when the food has been eaten but the conversation is still flowing. To me, this word sums up quite well the laidback Spanish lifestyle that consists of late, drawn-out dinners that follow afternoon siestas.
sumida (noun, Portuguese)- this is the noun version of “sumir” (to disappear) – and is often used by Brazilians to greet someone who they haven’t spoken to in a while/who has fallen off the face of the earth for a bit. For instance, you might say to someone “E ai sumida” (hey, person who has disappeared) – see, how do you translate that into English?
te quiero (Spanish): In English, we only have one way to tell someone we love them, which we use with friends, family and lovers. In Spanish, there are different ways you can say “I love you” to someone, depending on who you are speaking to and how you feel about the person. Like apaixonar, te quiero falls somewhere in between “I like you” and “I love you”. While te quiero can be said to friends, family, as well as one’s significant other, te amo is only used romantically and is reserved for the most intimate forms of love.
terroir (noun, French): Being a country that produces the most, and arguably the best, wine in the world, it makes sense that the French have a word that relates to the origins of wine production. Terroir is how certain environmental factors (such as soil, topography and climate) can affect the taste of wine.
torschlusspanik (noun, German): the panic that people start to feel as they get older and worry about things that they should have done or should be doing before it’s too late
toska (noun, Russian): there are many different levels of “toska”. At its most intense, the word translates to great spiritual anguish and yearning that often has no cause. It can also mean a simple longing and restlessness. It can be the desire for someone or something specific (similar to “saudade” in Portuguese). Finally, it can also translate to boredom.
trouvaille (noun, French): something wonderful that is discovered by chance
wabi-sabi (noun, Japanese): “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay”(Altalang.com)
verschlimmbessern (verb, German): the act of trying to make something better but actually making it worse
voorpret (noun, Dutch): Know that feeling of excitement and enjoyment that comes before a party or event? This is the word for that.
And the list is endless…these were just a few of my favorite ones that I’ve learned. Now that I’ve mentioned mine, what are some of your favorite untranslatable words/expressions?