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40+ Untranslatable Words: Concepts & Ideas With No English Counterpart


English is a complex language, but there are still many untranslatable words and concepts where English doesn’t yet have a phrase to describe them.

English is one of the most complex languages out there, growing everyday with dozens of words.

Even so, there are some concepts and feelings which need expressing and where English just doesn’t cut it.

Where there doesn’t exist yet a concise one-word word.

Below is a list of a few dozen untranslatable words. Some have links to the same word in our travel glossary, in case you want an extended, fuller definition.

Here are the most beautiful and interesting untranslatable words:

Litost – Self-pity brought on by the sudden awareness of one’s own misery or poor condition. (Czech)

Tacenda – A statement or sentiment that is better left unspoken. (Latin)

Myötähäpeä – shared sense of shame, but more specifically the feeling of shame or embarrassment you feel on another person’s behalf when they do something embarrassing. (Finnish)

Sehnsucht – An unidentifiable longing or yearning, often for a place or home; missing a place far away that one can identify as their home. (German)

Mizpah – A bond between two people that remains strong even over long distances or death. (Hebrew)

Tatemae – A belief that one may profess to be true, though they may not believe it in their hearts, such as peer-induced beliefs about religion or politics. (Japanese)

Nazlanmak – Pretending reluctance or nonchalant indifference for a situation or outcome, when instead you are actually eager for it; saying no but meaning yes. (Turkish)

Meraki – The soul or essence that an artist puts into their work, such as the love put into a baker’s cake or the creativity inside an artist’s painting. (Greek)

Ilunga – A person who is ready to forgive a crime,  transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time. (Tshiluba)

Fanaa – Dissolution or destruction of the “ego self,” as in love. (Arabic)

L’appel du vide – Literally “the call of the void,” an urge one might feel to jump or fall from a high place, though not suicidally; perhaps a non-destructive longing to try to fly from a cliff or tall building. (French)

Waldeinsamkeit – A feeling of being alone in the forest or woods. (German)

Uitwaaien – Literally “to walk in the wind,” it is to take a brief break in order to clear one’s head. (Dutch)

Dormiveglia – A state of being half-asleep or half-awake; the time or space between sleeping and waking. (Italian)

Querencia – A place where one draws inspiration or strength from, or the place where one feels most comfortable and true. (Spanish)

Tartle – To hesitate when introducing someone to another due to momentarily having forgotten that person’s name. (Scottish)

Vorfreude – A feeling of ecstatic joy when considering or anticipating an upcoming pleasure or thrill, such as a future vacation. (German)

Guanxi – In traditional Chinese society, similar to karma as a conceptual barter/trade system of deeds. One can accrue “good guanxi” with another by granting favors or volunteering time and services; one can also use up their accrued guanxi by calling in favors. (Chinese)

Kombinować – Coming up with a risky, unusual, or law-breaking solution to complications or problems; literally “to combine,” using all the resources at one’s disposal, though it may be questionable or nonconventional, to reach a complicated goal. (Polish)

Kairos – A temporary perfect moment where everything is aligned or in just the right time and place and circumstances. (Greek)

Prozvonit – Calling someone’s phone, usually cellular, and allowing it to ring once or twice before hanging up, in order for the other person, who might have a more economical calling plan, to call back, saving the original caller money. (Czech)

Shemomedjamo – To continue eating food because it is delicious even after the stomach is full. (Georgian)

L’esprit de l’escalier – Literally “stairway wit;” coming up with the perfect phrase, word, or retort just a bit too late. (French)

Hiraeth – A homesickness or longing feeling for a past time in one’s life or for a place which cannot be returned to. (Welsh)

Korinthenkacker – Similar to a nitpicker; someone who spends too much time performing trivial and unnecessary activities. Literally a “raisin pooper.” (German)

Panapo’o – Scratching one’s head in order to remember something. (Hawaiian)

Honne – A belief that one may inwardly accept to be true, though they would never admit it publicly or openly, such as a person with political views that may be deemed embarrassing or potentially cause for retribution if advanced or stated. (Japanese)

Ostranenie – Like defamiliarization, but more specifically to encourage oneself or another to view something normal as exciting or profound. (Russian)

Dépaysement – A feeling which stems from not being in one’s home country. (French)

Retrouvaille – A happiness felt when one meets an old friend after a long while, or sometimes a joy at rediscovery or a beloved item from the past. (French)

Mångata – The moon’s reflection on the water. (Swedish)

Nefelibata – Literally a “cloud walker,” it is one who is a non-conformist; one who disregards social conventions and norms. (Spanish, Portuguese)

Mamihlapinatapai – An unspoken look between two people with a shared, meaningful wish to initiate or agree on something, yet both are reluctant to start. (Yagan)

Cualacino – The mark or ring left on a table by a cold glass. (Italian)

Iktsuarpok – A feeling of anticipation which compels a person to look outside frequently to see if a friend or guest is coming. (Inuit)

Komorebi – The beams of sunlight which filters through the leaves and tree canopy. (Japanese)

Yoko Meshi – Literally “boiled rice {eaten} horizontally,” it specifically is used to comment at the difficulty one has when learning a new language. (Japanese)

Pochemuchka – Someone who asks a lot of questions. (Russian)

Jayus – A joke told so poorly and/or which is so humorless that you can’t help but to laugh; a typical “dad” joke. (Indonesian)

Goya – A suspension of disbelief that can occur, often through good storytelling. (Urdu) (thanks to Syed Mehdi on Quora!)

Sobremesa – After a meal, the time spent chatting with those people you just shared a meal with. (Spanish)

So, that’s it! We’ll constantly update this post. If you have any to add, let us know in the comments below!

Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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