SUSIE DENT explores foreign words we have no equivalent for

Why don’t we have an English word for the weight you put on from comfort eating after a break-up? SUSIE DENT explores the foreign words for universal experiences that we have no equivalent for

  • American dictionary Merriam-Webster asked for favourite ‘untranslatables’
  • They are words people picked up from other language that fill gap in vocabulary
  • READ: In wake of 20-year marriage split, Susie Dent has been reassessing her life

There are emotions and situations so universal, it’s astonishing we don’t have a word for them in English.

What, for example, might we call the feeling of exiting the hairdresser’s looking worse than when we went in?

Or perhaps, the extra weight we put on after a break-up?

And what about those brilliant ideas you come up with after several bottles of wine that in the cold light of day seem utterly ridiculous?

For all its richness and depth, its breadth and beauty, the English language doesn’t always quite cut it when it comes to these sentiments that fall between the cracks of our vocabulary. 

Fear not, however, because the chances are that another language almost certainly will.

One of the joys of learning a foreign tongue is not just the insight we get into a different culture and people, but also the joyful serendipity of coming across a word that we can’t believe we lived without.

Last week, the American dictionary makers Merriam-Webster invited people on Twitter to submit their own favourite ‘untranslatables’ — words they have picked up from another language that fill an important gap in our own vocabulary.

The conversation that followed was like a deep collective sigh of pleasure, as though the scores of correspondents have been saving up these gems for years, waiting for the moment to share them.

One of the most popular responses clearly struck a chord with many. Meet ‘kalsarikännit’, Finnish for drinking at home in your underwear (literally ‘underwear intoxication’).

READ MORE: Stink bombs in the audience, giggling fits over rude words and why I wear Rachel Riley’s bras: Dictionary Corner’s SUSIE DENT gives the inside take on her 30 years on Countdown 

A nother favourite was the Japanese ‘kuchisabishii’, which explains away those all-too-frequent trips to the fridge as the result of a ‘lonely mouth’.

Speaking of food, that extra padding we put on when we comfort-eat after a break-up is famously known in German as ‘Kummerspeck’. 

How lovely that there is a word for this, you might think, until you learn that this translates literally as ‘grief bacon’. 

And, in a similar vein, ‘Kummerspeck’ might well follow on from an unwise attempt to rekindle a recently lost relationship, in the mistaken belief that all problems have magically gone away.

In Italian, they call this ‘cavoli riscaldati’, or ‘reheated cabbage’: never a good idea.

Staying with the theme of love, English isn’t quite able to express the slow but irrevocable falling out of love we experience as a relationship fades. But Russian can, with the bittersweet ‘razliubit’. 

The same language gives us the extremely useful ‘pochemuchka’: someone who asks far too many questions.

Personally, I fell in love with the Lego-like quality of German words as a teenager — piling brick on brick — and often turn to them when it comes to an emotion I simply can’t express. 

That idea that seemed perfect when you were three sheets to the wind? That’s a ‘Schnapsidee’, a ‘Schnapps idea’.

German also offers up a word I could use on a daily basis. ‘Vorführeffekt’, ‘demonstration effect’, is what happens when you book a technician for your broken washing machine, only to find the same machine works perfectly the moment they arrive.

It doesn’t end there: ‘Vorführeffekt’ will also cover you for the times your child’s hacking cough miraculously disappears the second you walk into the doctor’s.

A ‘Verschlimmbesserung’ will also be a familiar concept to many once you know its meaning: this is an attempted improvement that ends up making things worse. One for anyone who avoids DIY like the plague.

French, of course, manages to make even the most prosaic of objects sound romantic. Forget the grapefruit, let’s enjoy a ‘pamplemousse’ instead. A dragonfly? That’s a ‘libellule’.

Such expressiveness means that when it comes to the big emotions, they always come up trumps. How many of us experienced ‘retrouvailles’ at the end of lockdown?

Personally, I fell in love with the Lego-like quality of German words as a teenager — piling brick on brick — and often turn to them when it comes to an emotion I simply can’t express (pictured: Susie Dent)

Wonderfully, this is the joy of reuniting with someone after a long time apart. Mind you, French can also be down-to-earth when it needs to be: what do you call someone so gullible they’ll believe anything? A ‘gobemouche’ (literally a ‘fly-swallower’).

As for the usually reserved or shy individual who suddenly flies off the handle, they are a ‘mouton enragé’, or ‘furious sheep’.

And French is there, too, for the genius retort you only think of as you’re walking away from a conversation: ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’ (staircase wit).

So many of these words and expressions relate to universal feelings. I remember the deep recognition of learning the Inuit term ‘iktsuarpok’. 

Put simply, it is the anticipation of waiting for someone to arrive. But it is more than that; it describes not just the restlessness of waiting for someone, but the repeated process of looking outside to check for their approach. Haven’t we all been there?

READ MORE: Aoife, Saoirse, omicron and Kyiv: Top ten words with the most difficult pronunciations are revealed – as Irish names, foreign foods and Americanisations leave us baffled 

Sometimes, though, a foreign word or phrase tells us more about the culture of its users than a thousand photographs.

In Finland, for example, there is an old measurement based on the average distance a reindeer can travel without needing to urinate. ‘Poronkusema’, or ‘reindeer pee’, is about 7km, if you’re interested.

Similarly, in Italian there is a word for elderly men who gather at construction sites, offering their own commentary on how the building work is going. 

These are the ‘umarell’ — who are presumably too busy for a ‘passeggiata’ (the traditional Italian afternoon stroll taken with the express intention of saying hello to other people).

Of course, Italians also have that flair and elegance that always seems so effortless, as they shrug off any compliment with a bemused smile. 

This is ‘sprezzatura’, a studied kind of nonchalance that we ourselves might try to mimic when we respond to a compliment on a carefully chosen outfit with a: ‘What, this old thing?’

Equally, many responded to Merriam-Webster with the Spanish ‘sobremesa’, time spent at the table once a meal has finished, when the conversation is still flowing. 

Perhaps we don’t need such a word in English because we experience such leisurely dinners too rarely.

The list goes on and on, from the Swedish ‘fika’, time spent over coffee and cake with a loved one, to the Ghanaian ‘pelinti’, to move hot food around your mouth (presumably with a string of ‘aaaaahs’ and ‘uhhhhhs’ as your tongue burns).

That misery of a bad haircut, by the way, is catered for by the Japanese ‘age-otori’.

There are thousands of such gems in other languages waiting to be discovered. Of course, I would be the first to recommend riffling through a historical English dictionary if you want to find solutions closer to home, and you’ll be surprised how many there are.

There is, as far as I know, no word in another language for the warmth of the sun in winter (apricity), nor for the act of longingly eyeing up someone else’s food. English has one: it’s groaking. It would be well worth resurrecting these long-lost beauties, too.

Sometimes, though, we must simply bow to the majesty of other tongues. After all, one can never know too many words, and half the joy of the untranslatables is the knowledge that, wherever we look, we will surely never run out.

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