There are a vast number of incredible words in most languages on the planet that just…don’t translate into English very well. The full meanings of these words are usually so spectacular that it’s a crying shame there’s no way to express them elegantly in English.
Many of these kinds of words have become familiar to English speakers in recent years. For example, schadenfreude, the German word for the weird frisson of joy we sometimes experience watching someone else’s misfortune, or hygge, the Danish term that became a full-on lifestyle trend in the mid-to-late-2010s. But there are plenty more delightful words and phrases out there that don’t quite have an English equivalent but are worth knowing all the same. The concepts and ideas they describe are all highly relatable, so even if you don’t know a term directly, you still probably know what it’s getting at.
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but these words are worth at least a paragraph all on their own.
A morgenmuffel is someone who really, really doesn’t do mornings. A German term, it’s a combination of the words der morgen, or morning, and der muffle, or a grump or a grouch—meaning that morgenmuffel’s literal translation is “morning grouch.” It may be helpful to think of a morgenmuffel as the kind of person who has a “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee” sign hanging somewhere near their workspace—and points wordlessly at it if you do, in fact, try to talk to them before they’ve had their coffee.
If you’ve ever seen something that’s so adorable, you just need to squeeze it, already, then you’ve experienced gigil—a Filipino word that describes that inexplicable urge we get to squeeze things that are really, really cute. As Filipino musician, director, and writer Wincey Aquino Ong once put it, its closest English equivalent is the saying, “You’re so cute, I could just eat you up,” although that’s still not quite the same thing. It’s worth noting, however, that these feelings might also be prompted not by something cute, but by something annoying, so the word can also be used in a more negative sense.
In Tagalog—the language that serves as the basis for Filipino (Filipino being the official national language of the Philippines)—the meaning of gigil is a little broader. It means something closer to gritting your teeth or steeling yourself so as not to lose your sense of self-control.
You know that person who goes to a coffee shop in the morning, buys a single, small black coffee, and then proceeds to spend all day in the shop, taking up the best seat, monopolizing all the more accessible electrical outlets, and probably using up all of the café’s WiFi bandwidth, without ever buying anything else? In French, that person is a seigneur-terrace. It’s an idiomatic expression—literally translated, it means something like “lord of the restaurant”—but let’s face it: We all know this person. (Don’t be this person. At least get yourself a new cup of coffee every couple of hours.)
For some, the height of enjoyment is merely sitting outside in the sunshine with your friends on a beautiful day—one that’s warm, but not too warm, with clear skies and maybe a light breeze—with a cold beer in your hand. In Norwegian, the beer in this specific situation is utepils. The word combines ute (outside) and pils (lager)—you’re enjoying an “outside beer.”
Sure, the concept exists in a lot of places; you might call it “cocktails on the patio,” or “sidewalk brunch,” or maybe just “a night at the beer garden”—but there’s something about the idea of a word specifically existing to describe a beer enjoyed outside that’s just so utterly delightful.
In Indonesian, jayus describes a joke so unfunny that it’s actually hilarious—the kind of thing you can’t help but laugh at, even while you groan at how terrible it is. Most dad jokes are probably jayus. Interestingly, an alternate definition positions it as a word describing someone who’s trying way too hard to be funny and failing miserably. But although these two definitions seem to be at odds with each other, what they both have in common is the duality of when being funny becomes being unfunny and vice versa.
For voracious readers, the “To Be Read” pile is both a blessing and a curse: That stack of books sitting on your desk, bedside table, or kitchen table somehow just keeps getting bigger as you acquire more things to read, no matter how many tomes you’ve actually managed to get through in the meantime. It might comfort you to know, however, that there’s an actual word for the tendency so many readers have of buying books and just letting them pile up: In Japanese, it’s called tsundoku. According to Open Culture, the word originated in the Meiji era, which ran from 1868 to 1912, as a pun; it’s a combination of the phrase tsunde oku (積ん読), meaning to let something pile up, and dokusho (読書), or to read books. Around the turn of the century, someone swapped out the oku in tsunde oku for doku, and, well… the rest, as they say.
Sweden is well-known for its coffee-based social culture. You might even be familiar with some of the more common terms associated with it, such as fika—the word for “coffee break” itself, wherein chatting with other people while you enjoy your cup of joe is an essential part of the experience. But there are plenty of other terrific words that have come out of fika culture—including tretår. A combination of the words tre, or three, and tår, or a small amount of liquid, tretår refers to the second refill of a cup of coffee—that is, the refill that brings your total coffee consumption up to three. Some have proposed the non-existent word “threefill” as an English equivalent, which sounds about right.
In the Ghanaian language Twi, or Akan Kasa, Sankofa literally means “go back and get it”—but it means so much more than that. Even the more complete translations—phrases like “go back to the past and bring forward that which is useful” or “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind,” from a closely-associated proverb, “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki”—only get at the idea of the word, rather than its full sense. Also represented by the image of a bird with its head turned backward, it’s more about letting the past guide you to the best future you can create. The Southern Illinois University Department of Africana Studies puts it like this:
“Connecting the past with the present allows us to be more effective agents in shaping our understanding of the forces that will have an impact on our collective future as citizens of the planet.”
The Carter G. Woodson Center at Berea College, meanwhile, describes it like this:
“Thus, the Akan believe the past serves as a guide for planning the future. To the Akan, it is this wisdom in learning from the past which ensures a strong future.”
And the University of Illinois Springfield, whose Black Student Union is named Sankofa, says this:
“‘Sankofa’ teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone, or been stripped of can be reclaimed, revived, preserved, and perpetuated.”
A powerful word, indeed.
Pantofole means “slippers” in Italian—as in, the warm, often fluffy footwear you don when you’re not planning on leaving your home anytime in the near future. Pantofolaio, meanwhile, takes the idea of a pair of house slippers and personifies it. Falling somewhere between “couch potato” and “homebody,” a pantofolaio is a person who would both rather stay at home (in their slippers, of course) than go out, and who, as The Local’s Italian edition put it in 2018, “avoids any activity which may disrupt the tranquility of their existence.”
Monotonous? Perhaps. Relaxing? Absolutely.
There’s a select sort of enjoyment that pops up when you’ve got something fun on the books—not the enjoyment you feel while you’re doing the thing, but the anticipatory pleasure you feel before the thing actually happens.
In Dutch, that’s known as voorpret, or, in a very literal sense, “pre-fun.” Voorpret tends to show up when you’re, say, getting ready leave on a trip, or a few days before a big concert you’ve got tickets to, or even just when you pre-order a book or video game you’ve been anticipating. It’s that delightful feeling of looking forward to something—which, apparently, is actually good for us, according to a growing body of research. How about that?
In practice, the Portuguese word saudade seems most commonly to be used to refer to a specific kind of nostalgia or melancholy—that which linguist David Shariatmadari records as “a nostalgic feeling of missing someone or something you love.” However, Jasmine Garsd also observed on NPR in 2015 that the word is “a common fixture in the literature and music of Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde, and beyond.” Its many meanings might even include “a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened,” along with “an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again.” There might not be an English word that sums up all of these meanings. Still, most people are undoubtedly familiar with this unique variety of feelings, no matter what language or languages they speak.
The Latin term vade mecum is most commonly used these days to refer to a handbook or an indispensable reference manual, but the true meaning of the phrase has a lot more to it than just that. Literally translated, it means “go with me,” which gives you a bit of a hint.
As Merriam-Webster notes, it’s been used at least since the 17th century to refer to the kinds of manuals or guidebooks that are both so useful, and so portable, that they were commonly carried around in pockets. Or, as the linguistically-minded website Other-Wordly underlines, a vade mecum is more than a favorite book; it’s a book you love so much, you carry it with you everywhere you go.
The Hebrew word firgun (פירגון) isn’t an official term; you won’t find it in any grammatically-correct dictionary. But although it’s more of a colloquialism than anything else (and, accordingly, present in dictionaries that also track slang terms), it’s still come to be an essential concept in Israeli culture from around the 1970s through to the present.
Those who have attempted to define it usually describe firgun as something like “the ability to view the success or virtue of the other with feelings of good will and sympathy, without jealousy or envy.” However, as both Irin Carmon at Tablet Magazine and Mark L. Levinson in Elephant.org’s “Translatable But Debatable” column observes, it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, notes Levinson, it’s not limited to describing just an attitude; it can also describe behavior. Carmon, meanwhile, finds it easier to describe what the idea of the word is, or what it’s about, rather than define it, writing, “In other words, it’s about an affinity that is authentic and without agenda.”
What the discussion of the word always includes, though, is selflessness: There’s no ego involved; it’s always about the other person. And that’s pretty great.
Okay, so technically, this one actually is English; however, it’s Old English, which means it’s a form of English that hasn’t been in use since just after the Norman Conquest. It also barely resembles modern-day English, which effectively makes it another language.
In any event, dustsceawung is a noun that’s most directly translated as “the view or contemplation of dust”—but as writer, English teacher Stephanie Huesler notes in her website’s regular “Obscurities” feature, it really means something more like, “The reflection of former civilizations and peoples, and on the knowledge that all things return to dust.” On the one hand, the thought is somewhat morbid—kind of memento mori or a reminder of our own mortality. On the other hand, though, it can also be a reminder to slow down, to remember that this, too, shall pass, and to enjoy what’s here while we have it.
So there you have it: 14 new words to add to your vocabulary to succinctly sum up a whole bunch of concepts that typically take at least a sentence or two to describe. Use them wisely; use them well; and share them when you can. After all, isn’t that what language is all about?