I have heard that there is a term for words like scapegoat, i.e. words that are translated directly from another language into English, but do not make literal sense out of their original cultural/linguistic origin.

What is the term for words like these?

  • Won't mistranslation (as a count noun) do here? ('[scape + goat (translation of Hebrew 'ēz 'ōzēl, goat that escapes, misreading of 'ăzā'zēl, Azazel).]) {AHDEL} Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 21:45
  • Not quite the same, but idioms are often specific to individual languages. 40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally is worth a look just for: German idiom: "Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof." Literal translation: “I only understand the train station.” Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 22:07
  • Related:- english.stackexchange.com/questions/13686/… Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 22:29
  • There are definitely phrases like the ones mentioned by Edwin Ashworth that do not make sense if translated literally from their original languages and that is perhaps why they are not used in English. There are also phrases like the ones in the related question referenced by chasly but those phrases can be translated literally and understood. Scapegoat only makes sense if you understand that it was being used to absolve people of their sins by throwing it off a cliff. Without the Jewish context the literal etymology of the word is meaningless.
    – SophArch
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 22:40

1 Answer 1


Often the terms calque and loan translation are used. The latter is preferable as there are different types of calques.

Please see Wikipedia on these terms.

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