Writing Wednesday: 10 Fascinating but Untranslatable Words from Around the World

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Today marks the 144th anniversary of the American Philological Association. Founded by “professors, friends and patrons of linguistic science,” the APA is dedicated to the study of ancient languages, literature and civilisations. In honour of such a noble endeavour, we’ve decided to do a little linguistic research of our own.

The German term schadenfreude (“to take pleasure in the misfortune of another”) has found its way into everyday conversation in non-German societies because the meaning of the word is universal yet the description is so specific that it can’t be succinctly translated. There are many other words like this that sum up a common feeling or activity yet can’t be translated into multiple languages. Here are 20 of our favourite untranslatable words that would probably save a lot of long-winded explanations.

1) Mencomet (Indonesian)

The act of stealing things of small value, such as food or drinks, just for fun.

2) Sobremesa (Spanish)

The time you spend talking after finishing a meal with other people.

3) Plimpplamppletteren (Dutch)

Meaning “the skimming of a flat stone as many times as possible across the surface of the water,” this word may actually be longer than explaining you are “skipping stones.”

4) Koshatnik (Russian)

Perhaps Russia has a greater problem with cat theft than the rest of the world, as this term is used exclusively to describe a dealer in stolen cats.

5) Zhaghzhagh (Persian)

The chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage.

6) Luftmensch (Yiddish)

Yiddish has given us lots of terms to describe various types of social misfits, like klutzes or shlemiels. This one, however, refers specifically to an impractical dreamer with no business sense. Translated literally: air person.

7) Iktsuarpok (Inuit)

Have you ever waited for a guest and had such a strong sense of anticipation that you’ve kept going outside to check if he or she has arrived yet? Well, the Inuit know the feeling, and have given a name to it.

8) Faamiti (Samoan)

A very specific type of whistle, this is the squeaking sound made by sucking air past your lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or child.

9) Hygge (Danish)

Maybe a word that belongs more in the fantasy realm, this refers to the complete absence of anything annoying, irritating or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle and soothing things.

10) Tartle (Scottish)

Hey, at least if you forget someone’s name you can still impress them by knowing this Scottish word describing the moment of panic you experience when you are introducing someone and realise you’ve forgotten their name.

For more fun with wonderfully untranslatable words, check out the BuzzFeed video below:

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