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My Favorite Untranslatable Words

It’s my last day as an Archipelago Books intern and I had a sudden urge to post a long, unnecessary list of my favorite untranslatable words, from the hilariously specific to the heartwarmingly universal. These and more at Better Than English. I’ll miss you Archipelago!

Mbuki-mvuki (Bantu)

To shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance.

Geborgenheit (German)

To feel completely safe; like nothing could ever harm you. Usually connected to a particular place or person.

Nito-onna (Japanese)                             

A woman so dedicated to her career that she has no time to iron blouses and so dresses only in knitted tops.

Koi No Yokan (Japanese)                                  

The sense one can have upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love. Differs from “love at first sight” as it does not imply that the feeling of love exists, only the knowledge that a future love is inevitable.

Fremdscham (German)

Embarrassment felt on behalf of someone else (often someone so ignorant to what they have done that they don’t know they should be embarrassed for themselves); vicarious embarrassment.

Tsundoku (Japanese)

Buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up on shelves or floors or nightstands.

Oka/SHETE (Ndonga, Nigeria)

Urination difficulties caused by eating frogs before the rain has duly fallen.

Voorpret (Dutch)

Literally “pre-fun.” The sense of enjoyment one feels before an event actually takes place.

L’esprit d’escalier (French)

The feeling you get after leaving a conversation, when you think of all the things you should have said. Literally translates to “the spirit of the staircase.”

Waldeinsamkeit (German)

The feeling of being alone in the woods.

Backpfeifengesicht (German)

A face badly in need of a fist.

Razbliuto (Russian)

The sentimental feeling you have about someone you once loved but no longer do.

Frotteur (French)

Individuals who get their jollies by rubbing their crotches against the buttocks of women in crowds.

Qarrtsiluni (Iñupiaq)

Sitting together in the darkness, waiting for something to burst.

Yoko meshi (Japanese)

Literally, “horizontal rice” or “a meal eaten sideways.” This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally.

Rire dans sa barbe (French)

Literally, “to laugh in your beard.” To laugh to oneself quietly while thinking about something that happened in the past.

Hanyauku (Rukwangali, Namibia)

The act of walking on tiptoes across warm sand.

Pisan Zapra (Malay)

The amount of time required to eat a banana.

Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan, the indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego)

The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.

Cafuné (Portuguese)

To tenderly run one’s fingers through someone’s hair.

Torschlusspanik (German)

This word literally means “gate-closing panic” and is used to describe the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.

Litost (Czech)

A state of torment created by the sight of one’s own misery.

Koro (Chinese)

The belief that one’s penis is shrinking and will eventually disappear.

Dérive (French)

An aimless walk through the city streets.

Fernweh (German)

A strong longing to be away, to go somewhere.

Ohrwurm (German)

Literally “ear worm.” Whenever you get a song or tune stuck in your head, it is an Ohrwurm.

Poronkusema (Finnish)

A very old Finnish unit of measurement: the distance a reindeer can travel before having to stop and urinate.

L’appel du vide (French)

Translates literally as “call of the void.” The urge some people get to jump from high places when they encounter them, for example when close to the edge of cliffs.

Pohmelyatsya (Russian)

Taking a shot in the morning to help make your hangover go away.

Utepils (Norwegian)

To sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer.

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