Top 10 Awesomely Untranslatable Words and Their Meanings

Your stupid jayus made my favorite googly start to tartle. Oh, really? What?

Schadenfreude. Shemomedjamo. Iktsuarpok. Myötähäpeä. Every language has them, and they’re always trouble. They’re the “untranslatables,” and what they mean is just too much for other languages to capture in one word.

Some languages, like Turkish, are structured to have longer words. Take gumusservi, which translates to “the light of the moon as it shines upon the water.” And muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine means “as though you are from those we may not be able to easily make a maker of unsuccessful ones.” Um, yeah, moving right along (that’s the longest word in Turkish by the way).

There are plenty of untranslatables in English too. Global polls of language professionals have given top prizes to bumf, chuffed, googly, serendipity, gobbledegook and kitsch. Some English untranslatables are taken from German, some from Persian and many have no known origin. Hell, some of them wouldn’t even “translate” into different versions of English!

So let’s take a look at some of Voxy’s favorite untranslatables and their meanings:

Prozvonit (Czech) – to call a mobile phone and let it ring once, so that the other person will call back, saving the first caller money

Drachenfutter (German) – “dragon fodder,” a type of gift German husbands bestow on their wives when they’ve stayed out late or have otherwise engaged in inappropriate behavior

Shvitzer (Yiddish) – Someone who sweats a lot, especially a nervous seducer

Tartle (Scottish) – To hesitate while introducing someone due to having forgotten his/her name

Ilunga (Southwest Congo) – a person who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense

Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – To go outside to check if anyone is coming

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

Shemomedjamo (Georgian) – To continue eating food even though you’re already full, just because you like the taste of the food so much

Tingo (Pascuense) – The act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them

Myötähäpeä (Finnish) – a shared sense of shame

11 thoughts on “Top 10 Awesomely Untranslatable Words and Their Meanings

  1. kevin says:

    Well, I’m from Vietnam. We have a word that shares the same meaning with Prozvonit. It is “nhá máy”. Sometimes, just because your account is not affordable for a real call, but you can make a call and let it ring then you end the call and wait for the receiver to call you back. In another case, you send a message yet it is no reply for long time, you make a “prozvonit” to check if they receive your message.

    I’m not sure we have a word bearing this meaning in English.

    • Nadya says:

      both of these words exist and have slightly different meaning:) pozvonit is to call, while prozvonit is to call through a list of phone numbers

  2. Rokas says:

    I highly doubt this list.

    1) prozvonit is simply a verb which means “to call” with the added prefix pro-. As aika pointed out, it also exists in Russian, just in a slightly different form. In both of these (and other related) languages this and similar verbs carry the basic meaning “to call” and these extra nuances of “waiting for the person to call back” are implicit in the context in which the verb is used.

    2) Inuit example is also questionable. Inuit being one of the so-called polysynthetic languages, it is the very structure of the language which underlies the potential of “words that translate into whole sentences in other languages”. In Inuit (Inuktitut), a word is assembled by appending to a basic lexeme a string of suffixes each of which add a certain aspect of meaning to the original lexeme.

    3) The Finnish example is also hard to take seriously (not because of Finnish, but because of possible ignorance of those who compiled this list).

    “A shared sense of …” most probably comes down to a prefix or a suffix, much like con- and sym- in compassion and sympathy, respectively. In almost every Indo-European language, there is some form of the old *kom- prefix which indicates “something shared”. In this way, compassion is “passion felt together”, symmetry is “common measure”, symposium is “the occasion of drinking together”. Let me ask then, Why “Myötähäpeä (Finnish)” and not “Sambo (Swedish)”, which means “a person who lives with another person in their shared flat”?

    • Janne says:

      Don’t quite understand what you mean by the Finnish example being hard to take seriously. I’m Finnish and I can tell you that “a shared sense of shame” is a pretty accurate translation. You’re right about there being a prefix, though.

  3. Roger says:

    What a great list. I’m not sure why Rokas has to hate on this post so much. It’s a great illustration of the nuance of language. Another obvious example would be deja vu. Though it’s literal meaning is quite simple, so many other languages have incorporated it simply because there is no simple translation. Or, how about Murphy’s Law? Catch 22? Those can be fun to try to explain to ESL students…

  4. Dan says:

    What a fascinating article ! However, I agree with Rokas in that “the shared sense of shame” is quite not what myötähäpeä is. It is more like a feeling of humiliation and embarrassment for someone elses acts.

  5. Rendall says:

    The most direct translation of ‘myötähäpeä’ is the cringe in ‘cringe-worthy’: that feeling of shame you get when you watch someone else doing something embarrassing.

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