What are your favourite words and idioms in other languages that don't have good, succinct equivalents in English?

(The issue of whether there is, or could be, a sentence on one language whose meaning could not be made known in another is a different, albeit interesting, philosophical question.)

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    IMHO this whole question is off-topic. I vote to close. – JSBձոգչ Aug 6 '10 at 22:13
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    I think it is a nice question. Though it may belong on the linguist StackExchange, it isn't a technical linguistic question, and I think does belong in the realm of English Language and Usage. – Vincent McNabb Aug 9 '10 at 1:12
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    There are really no such things as untranslatables. One doesn't translate words, one translates sentences or even ideas. The notion (popularized by 1984) that one's language defines one's thoughts can only, in my opinion, have been devised by someone who's never done any serious translation work. Some words just don't have one-to-one mapping between languages -- in fact, most of them don't, so you could just as well say that all words are untranslatable. – ptomato Aug 19 '10 at 9:11
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    @ptomato: On the contrary, someone who's done any serious translation work, especially of literature, would know that most things are untranslatable. :-) (See e.g. Nabokov's many comments on translation.) At best one can convey a distant approximation, e.g. conveying meaning but not the real effect a sentence has in the original language, or something like that. – ShreevatsaR Oct 13 '10 at 12:39
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    @ShreevatsaR, that's what I was trying to say. I realize it must have been confusing to start off with "there are no such things as untranslatables" but what I meant was that I didn't consider "untranslatable" to have any meaning. – ptomato Oct 14 '10 at 7:41

24 Answers 24


I like the pronouns in Māori. For instance, in English we have the word we. In Māori there are different words depending on who we are:

  • Mātou: The group of us, not including you.
  • Tātou: The group of us, including you.
  • Māua: The two of us, not including you.
  • Tāua: You and me.

In English, we'd have to say the following, where one of the above words would suffice:

  • My group is going to the city.
  • Our group is going to the city.
  • My friend and I are going to the city.
  • You and I are going to the city.

Of course, for any "untranslatable" phrase, there is a way to put the phrase forward in any language. It just becomes a whole lot more cumbersome. It works both ways. There are indeed many phrases in English, which cannot really translate well into another language. This is why translations into other languages are very often larger than the English original, but sometimes shorter, for much the same reason. Also the translation for the same sentence can differ depending on the context.

For instance, where I wrote my friend and I, I could easily have written my father and I, or this policeman and I. Of course, in English, I could just use the word we, if the person I was speaking to knew that I was going to go somewhere with someone else. But if they didn't, the Maori version is a lot more succinct.

  • I still can't wrap my head around "The two of us, not including you". It can't possibly mean "the two of us, not including you, a third person" (that would be a pleonasm); and it can't possibly mean "me and you, not including you". Or can it? Help! – RegDwigнt Sep 11 '10 at 15:08
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    @RegDwight: I assume it means "me and someone else, not you". – ShreevatsaR Sep 24 '10 at 19:31
  • Inclusive and non-inclusive first person plural and dual. Dual = 2, plural > 2, inclusive: includes the second person, non-inclusive : does not include the second person. Not many languages have all four forms. – Richard Gadsden May 21 '12 at 11:33
  • Bislama has an even more intricate pronoun system. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bislama#Pronouns – MaudPieTheRocktorate Aug 28 '17 at 14:14

Nu -- Yiddish word that has no real equivalent in English. Leo Rosten writes: "nu is the verbal equivalent of a sign, a frown, a grin, a grunt, a sneer."

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    hold on - now we have it in "English": the :( smiley – Taldaugion Aug 24 '10 at 22:47
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    @Taldaugion: Funny! How can I give your comment +1000? – Goodbye Stack Exchange Aug 25 '10 at 1:33
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    Or "meh" kind of, although that has a hint of apathy too. – glenatron Dec 2 '10 at 18:18

I like the website "untranslatable" for this kind of list.

a community project formed to examine issues of untranslatability in general, with a specific focus on single words that require phrases, paragraphs, or pages to translate


"Fond de l'air"

This is a classic of untranslatable French words/idioms.
You simply cannot convey (at least not in English, maybe someone can help me discover a language that can) the meaning of the French word "fond de l'air" which is used only in the sentence:

"Le fond de l'air est frais."

"Fond de l'air" literally means "the bottom of the air" (not as in arse but more like in the bottom of the glass).
The whole sentence means that the weather is sunny and you could be tricked into thinking that it is summertime, the air is warm and in parading in your bikini when in fact the air is quite cool (not in a refreshing and welcome way) and the weather is just waiting for you to stop being on your guard to give you a nasty cold.

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German for "pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others."


  • Sadism is the word for that – Midhat Aug 13 '10 at 3:37
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    @Midhat - Not really. Sadism is the enjoyment of INFLICTING suffering on others. Shadenfreude is typically associated with being happy when bad things happen to others that wasn't caused by you personally. – JohnFx Aug 13 '10 at 6:51
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    But this word does have an English translation: "Schadenfreude". ;-) (The most useful words from other languages' vocabularies have often already been borrowed into English.) – ShreevatsaR Aug 13 '10 at 17:29
  • In Dutch: leedvermaak ("suffering-entertainment") – Paul Lammertsma Sep 15 '10 at 23:28
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    In Swedish, there is a perfect equivalent for this: skadeglädje. ^^ – gablin Jan 4 '11 at 11:36

English seems to have formed with only 3 or 4 words for emotions, not counting the dozens of words meaning "inebriated". Fortunately, the language's facility with innovation has given us many loanwords for emotional states. Some more examples of nuanced emotions borrowed from other languages:

Angst, Tristesse, Schadenfreude, Joie de vivre, Amour fou

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    @cini: I think the French Language Police will fine someone who borrows English words. :) – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 7 '10 at 17:09
  • Angst is not untranslatable, is it? – Stefano Palazzo Jan 4 '11 at 18:30

I particularly like the French phrase l'esprit de l'escalier -- it literally means the spirit of the staircase, but it refers to coming up with the perfect retort to something only after you've left the room.

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    How is this untranslateable? People say "staircase wit" all the time. (Well, some people do.) – andyvn22 Aug 23 '10 at 2:08
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    I have never heard "staircase wit".... – kitukwfyer Sep 11 '10 at 14:22
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    good but (very) seldomly used in french though... – Elenaher Oct 13 '10 at 15:30
  • Since I heard of it I've been borrowing it in English. – glenatron Dec 2 '10 at 18:21

One of my favorites has always been the Russian "оскомина" [ʌs'komʲɪnɘ], which can be defined as

temporary toothache which you can get by biting into something extremely sour, or eating too much of something sour — especially apples or grapes —, and which you won't actually feel at all if you just stop eating, but which will make biting, chewing, or even drinking extremely painful for hours to come.

I sometimes refer to it as "hidden toothache" or "ninja toothache". It will usually go away all by itself after some time. Traditional medicine also recommends drinking milk, weak tea, or baking-soda solution to make it go away faster.

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    Thanks for that last paragraph. That might be useful. :) – kitukwfyer Aug 19 '10 at 16:35
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    @kitukwfyer: yeah, the idea is to neutralize the acid, and conventional medicine actually agrees that soda, milk, and lukewarm tea are good candidates. Immediately brushing your teeth, on the other hand, is not recommended, because a toothbrush will actually worsen the physical damage inflicted by acid on the tooth enamel. (This is probably the most off-topic comment I have ever left on any StackExchange site.) – RegDwigнt Aug 19 '10 at 18:14
  • Nonetheless, I'm grateful, lol.:) – kitukwfyer Aug 19 '10 at 20:39
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    As an aside, I like that comma after the dash. It's old fashioned punctuation, but I like it. – TRiG Oct 19 '10 at 18:24

From Portuguese:

  • Saudade: it is a noun that is akin to "missiness", the feeling of missing someone. A bit like "homesick", but that can be used not simply for missing home, but for when you miss someone, or something (anything).

  • Chato: similar to "pain in the neck", but a bit less strong. It is the opposite of nice, used when you don't really like someone (but that person does not necessarily have to be so unbearable as a "pain in the neck").

  • Frescura: close to "fussiness". It is even hard to explain, but it is used when someone is fussy about something, or particular about something, we say that the person "is with frescura".

  • este, esta, isto, esse, essa, isso, aquele, aquela, aquilo: similar to "this" and "that". Actually, "isto", "este" and "esta" can be translated exactly as "this" (losing only gender information). But each of other two forms, when translated to their closest approximation, "that", lose some meaning. When the thing in question is closer to the listener we use "isso", "esse" and "essa", while "aquilo", "aquele" and "aquela" mean the thing is away from both. It's funny how Portuguese has no neuter pronoun ("it") but it has neuter demonstratives ("isto", "isso", "aquilo").

Interesting that... I once read that our thoughts are limited by the language we speak, and I think this is so true!

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    About "frescura": my girlfriend explained it in a simple way. Imagine a kid doesn't want to eat his food because "the color is weird". Just eat it! Who cares? Stop being "fresco"! – Paul Lammertsma Aug 7 '10 at 12:23
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    I totally agree with "saudade". I've heard that Portuguese is one of the few languages that has a word for it. But maybe we could translate "chato" as either "annoying" or "boring" depending on the context. – b.roth Aug 12 '10 at 22:01
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    Wouldn't the English word for saudade be pining? – Kosmonaut Aug 18 '10 at 22:11
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    "my pining for you is immense" is fine, if a little awkward. More poetic might be "my pining for you is as the parrot for the fjords". "Pining" is dropping out of popular usage, which is probably why it took a while for someone to think of it. – Taldaugion Aug 24 '10 at 22:45
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    FordBuchanan: "hiraeth" seems more like "homesick" than "saudade" You can have "saudades" of anything, be it your homeland, your dog, your pencil, your state of mind or even of the act of doing something. It really applies to absolutely anything you miss. It's like "to miss" in a noun. – R. Martinho Fernandes Oct 13 '10 at 9:34

My all-time favorite is the Dutch (and German) word "gezellig" ("gemütlich"). It can be used in any number of pleasant scenarios to describe:

  • The nice ambience (e.g. soft lighting, crackling fire, quiet murmur);
    "Dit restaurant is gezellig." (This restaurant is cozy.)
  • Enjoyable company (e.g. when a group of friends gets along well);
    "Ga je gezellig mee uit?" (Will you join us sociably?)
  • Having enjoyed a period of time together (e.g. a pleasant evening).
    "Het was vandaag gezellig." (It was fun [with others] today.)

When hosting tourists, I often realize how frequently the word is used to really describe anything... nice.

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    In German it's "gesellig" – vonjd Aug 8 '10 at 12:54
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    If it's untranslateable how comes it that you have managed to translate it into English in the above? – delete Aug 9 '10 at 4:45
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    The definition varies depending on the situations or its context. As you can see, the translation can be any number of possibilities. As with all "untranslatables", the word can be substituted, but there is single translation. – Paul Lammertsma Aug 9 '10 at 14:57
  • +1 this is my favorite as well – eds Aug 25 '10 at 15:32
  • This is basically equivalent to Danish hyggelig, though that wouldn't work in the second scenario. There is the basic noun hygge, though (gezelligheid, with a reversed derivation pattern to the Dutch), and the verb hygge (sig) ‘to be/make/have/do hygge (in a group usually)’. I don't know what the Dutch version of that would be; gezellen, perhaps? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 19 '13 at 21:10

Going out on a limb here, because I don't really speak German, but there's one "word" I do quite like, which is Jein, a mix of Ja and Nein, which kind of means "Yes and No, neither, I can't answer that".

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    Facetiously, I've heard yehhhh-NO in English, a sort of drawn-out feint towards yes followed by an emphatic no. Also, in certain vernaculars there's mu (etymology 2 of en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mu), borrowed from Japanese and augmented. – ptomato Aug 19 '10 at 9:03
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    My old German teacher used "Jein" in the sense of "sort of," "not quite," and "not really at all, but that DOES make sense." The closest English equivalent I've heard to this might actually be "Meh," but it's still not the same. :) – kitukwfyer Aug 19 '10 at 13:53
  • @kitukwfyer, I originally included "meh" in my list when writing the answer, but I wasn't 100% sure about its meaning - I think it's more USEnglish, which I'm not too good at :) – Benjol Aug 20 '10 at 5:23
  • I tend to favor "fffffeh?" – Goodbye Stack Exchange Aug 25 '10 at 1:34
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    I've used "Yes. No. Mu." to express something like this. If said aloud, all three words needs to declarations - don't use a questioning inflection. – Marthaª Oct 13 '10 at 14:25

In Malay, there are two words for hot: pedas, spicy hot, and panas, temperature. I remember this only as a request for clarification.

"This food is hot"
"Pedas or panas?"

It was always useful.

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  • Useful separation of meanings! – glenatron Dec 2 '10 at 23:39
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    I imagine many languages make that distinction. At least, Spanish, Galician, Italian and French do. – CesarGon Jan 3 '11 at 20:39
  • as does German too: scharf and heiß – Eldroß Jan 28 '11 at 7:47
  • I think you've spotted a peculiarity of English here. – Stéphane Gimenez Sep 17 '12 at 23:28

The obvious from the French: savoir-faire.

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  • and What does it mean – Midhat Aug 13 '10 at 3:38
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    I think it's best explained through song: youtube.com/watch?v=MfDWV1D4TR8 – jeffamaphone Aug 13 '10 at 17:02
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    French “savoir-faire” (lit. “know-do”) is pretty close to English “know-how”. In fact it's the English “savoir-faire” that doesn't have a perfect match in French, though “le mot juste” (lit. “the right word”) comes close. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Sep 11 '10 at 23:57

I always struggle to explain the Spanish "cursi" to my English-speaking friends. It is an adjective that you apply to a person (or, rarely, a thing) that is trite, corny, presumptuous and baroquely embellished. You would say it of a little girl with a pretty dress full of lacy ribbons and a silly voice that acts as if she were the queen of the world.

  • Could this be tacky in English? Kitsch works too, but I don't know how long we need to have borrowed a word for it to become part of English. – FordBuchanan Jan 19 '11 at 19:44
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    @Ford: I associate "tacky" to something tasteless and vulgar. "Cursi" tries (and fails) to be classy and refined, so much that overdoes it. This is "cursi": dedicaselo.com/images/ecards/fullsize/img_055c10c0cursi.gif – CesarGon Jan 19 '11 at 19:54

The word "Volta" in Greek is similar to the English word "jaunt", but has a more nuanced meaning with other connotations.

In the late afternoon/early evening in Greece it is traditional for a family or social group of friends to go on a stroll outdoors en masse, often after a meal.

After a late lunch, the entire family took a volta down to the plaka (town square).

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    The Spanish vuelta and plaza fit in that sentence the same way as the Greek volta and plaka. Could these Spanish words come from Greek through Latin? – Jaime Soto Dec 2 '10 at 18:14

IMO, no word is precisely translatable. Similar to codominance in genetics, all recessive synonyms eventually take part in carrying "submeaning" of a text, if it is targeted for a human reader.

  • Which is why sometimes, especially when I'm tired, I simply cannot use a perfectly good English word when a word from another language fits the sense better, even if it is effectively one-to-one. – Jon Purdy Oct 21 '10 at 0:18

The Japanese words which mean, roughly, "this" and "that".

If I remember correctly from my beginner's class:

  • Kore = this (object is closer to the speaker than the listener).
  • Sore = that (object is closer to the listener than the speaker).
  • Are = that (object is far from both the speaker and the listener).

Japanese is also full of forms which demonstrate the relative social or professional status of the speaker and listener, which have no precise counterparts in English. (See honorific speech).

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  • The second "that" could be translated as "yonder". Not so commonly used these days, but still recognisable, I think. – teedyay Sep 7 '10 at 12:21
  • Why are these untranslateable? – delete Sep 16 '10 at 14:34
  • Because these words (especially "sore" and "are", and the honorifics) have no directly equivalent words in modern English. Of course, it's possible to translate them by adding additional explanation, or by accepting that certain aspects of the meaning will be lost, but neither is as succinct as the original word. – Steve Melnikoff Sep 16 '10 at 16:40
  • You've translated them into "this" and "that" here, which seem to be fairly equivalent. – delete Sep 16 '10 at 20:33
  • @Shinto: "sore" and "are" can both be translated as "that", but lose meaning in the process. Fairly equivalent? Yes. Precisely equivalent? No, because some meaning has been lost. – Steve Melnikoff Sep 16 '10 at 22:27

In Urdu, تو، تم and آپ all are translated into English as "you". Although all these words literally mean "you", there is a different level of respect associated with each, and they would be used in different scenarios. Aap (آپ) being the most respectful, then tum(تم) and then tu(تو) crossing the line into derogatory or very casual.



In Arabic, plural starts from three. So there is a word for one object, another word for two objects and then a word for plural. This applies to pronouns as well

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The following have stuck as English loanwords, albeit in niche jargon:

  • Zeitnot (German): being short of time.
  • Sabaki (Japanese): having the initiative, and "on a roll".
  • Schwerpunkt (German): "point of attack", but more like, the best place to chop a tree to bring it down.
  • Aji (Japanese): potential energy, in the sense that a rock in your hand has more of it than a rock on the ground.
  • Mook (Chinese): a form of cannon fodder used in movies; and on software projects to pad the roster when you get paid by the hour.


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Russian razbliuto: the feeling you have for someone you once loved, but now do not.

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    Never heard this word :) You mean "razlubit" maybe? – serg Sep 23 '10 at 0:15
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    Huh, fascinating! Sorry for promulgating the falsehood. – In the Booley House Sep 23 '10 at 13:55

Although a particle and not a word or idiom, there's the French untranslatable "ne" in the subjunctive mood. For example:

Je ne doute pas qu'il n'ait raison = I do not doubt that he is right

I remember this giving me nightmares in A-level French :-)

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Separate pronouns for second person singular and second person plural.

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  • You're not from Alabama, are you? ;) – oosterwal Feb 8 '11 at 18:42
  • @oosterwal: How dare I forget about y'all! I'm from Central Florida, which is in the South or just south of the South depending on who you ask. – Jaime Soto Feb 8 '11 at 18:52

In Swedish, there's a word called lagom which is a bit difficult to translate to English.

It means "just right", "in moderation", "enough", "adequate", "not too much, not too little", etc. Generally it conveys the impression of "being content".

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There is a term used in dressage Durchlässigkeit which means something like "throughness" or "permeability" in terms of the flow of the rider's aids through the horse. Obviously, permeability - which I believe to be the literal translation - is an English word, but basically meaningless in this context; if I said a horse was permeable the logical response would be to avoid putting them out in the rain.

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