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There are simply no words... seriously, we haven't come up with those yet.
March 14, 2009 7:40 AM   Subscribe

Is there a word or phrase in any language that describes a moment that is so perfect that it makes you sad, either because it will eventually end or because every moment can't be that perfect? How about a word for a moment that is so perfect that "words can't describe it"? Are there any other concepts that are difficult to describe in English, but easy in other languages?

The French and Germans have words/phrase for that feeling you get when you come up with the perfect comeback too late to use it (l'espirt d'escalier and treppenwitz). Arabic and German speakers can also easily describe the feeling of joy they find in others' pain (Shamateh and Schadenfreude).

They're lucky. With English, everything is made up of drawn out phrases and clauses, or so it seems when compared to German, where there's a short (and terse sounding) word for everything.

So, are there word that describe the moments above? Do you know any other cool phrases (in any language) that can't be expressed compactly in English? Are there phrases/words/concepts that are easy in English, but difficult to describe in another language?
posted by aristan to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
Scrumtrulescent
posted by neilkod at 7:53 AM on March 14, 2009


Sorry, Scrumtrulescent
posted by neilkod at 7:54 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Japanese has 物の哀れ (mononoaware), which expresses the sadness one experiences because beauty, especially natural beauty, is fleeting.
posted by Alison at 7:55 AM on March 14, 2009 [11 favorites]


Isn't it "bittersweet"? Or is that too prosaic?

Great question(s). Need time to think.
posted by emhutchinson at 7:57 AM on March 14, 2009


I think the gaelic word dubhachas, which translates as melancholy, is used also used in describing the feeling of sadness during those perfect moments. But someone correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by kimdog at 7:59 AM on March 14, 2009


This isn't quite the same, but the realization that something good will eventually end makes me think of the Buddhist idea of impermanence. Duhka is that suffering, if I remember correctly.
posted by Camel of Space at 8:00 AM on March 14, 2009


In danish we have "forventningsglæde", which is a feeling of happiness about an upcoming happy event.
posted by alchemist at 8:02 AM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well, the word exquisite denotes a frailty in perfection in modern usage. Which is sort of what you are getting at but not really.

Don't hate on English so much, though. What it lacks in precision it makes up for in encouraging new plays on words through its expansive catalogue of synonyms and similar words.
posted by Mizu at 8:04 AM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Seconding bittersweet... that nails that feeling for me...
posted by Chairboy at 8:07 AM on March 14, 2009


so perfect words can't describe: ineffably perfect
so perfect it makes you sad: heartbreakingly beautiful

well... I tried :)
posted by shivohum at 8:21 AM on March 14, 2009


I tend to call that stuff "poignant" or "poignantly beautiful."
posted by Miko at 8:28 AM on March 14, 2009


emhutchinson: I didn't think of bittersweet, but it's probably the best English word to describe the feeling, though I think bittersweet may be more flexible a word than I was looking for... something that starts sad and ends happily can be bittersweet as well. I'd still love to know how other languages describe the feeling. Building up my own multilingual thesaurus here.

Mizu: Oh, I love English. Years ago, I made the decision to focus on it entirely, rather than try to branch out and learn other languages. One thing english does better than any other language is steal. If we find a word that better suits the event, we will totally take it and not give credit. German, French, they tend to want to keep their language "pure" and try to come up with their own words.

Alison: Great word! And of course, a very Japanese concept.

alchemist: so it describes looking forward to an event? Saying that I just realized what a weird phrase is used in english: "Looking Forward". I have no idea how to pronounce it, btw.
posted by aristan at 8:28 AM on March 14, 2009


Well it isn't exactly a descriptor, but the phrase "nunc dimittis" has been used to enunciate the feeling that somehow an apotheosis has been reached. The phrase is Latin, and derives from the Song of Simeon. In the Bible, Simeon was an aged prophet who had been promised that he would not die until he witnessed, with his own eyes, God's salvation for his people. When he saw Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus to the temple, he realized that his time had come: everything he had been waiting for was here, and only now was he able to depart in peace, there being nothing else left to accomplish. It somehow reflects both a sense of satisfaction and a sense of longing.

John Coltrane is said to have whispered the words after finishing a spectacular performance of his piece "A Love Supreme," though this may be apocryphal. It's the kind of thing one would say when one realizes that one has just reached the pinnacle of something. "You may as well take me now, God; that's as good as it gets," or some equivalent sentiment.
posted by valkyryn at 8:48 AM on March 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


Wabi Sabi.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:58 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do you know any other cool phrases (in any language) that can't be expressed compactly in English? Are there phrases/words/concepts that are easy in English, but difficult to describe in another language?

Yes, definitely; and possibly, but that's a much harder question to answer definitively.

For other languages with words for terms that English lacks, there have been several books on the topic, including Howard Rheingold's They Have A Word For It and Adam de Boinod's The Meaning of Tingo. These are kind of light reading and -- in the case of Rheingold, at least -- are more prone to go for the entertaining story than the rigorous definition. He perpetuates the charming myth that the Russian word razbliuto means "the feelings one has for someone one used to be in love with. but longer is." The existence of this word is startling to Russians, who have never heard of it.

With English terms that are difficult to translate easily, we are into a different thing altogether. Because English started out as a Germanic language, has a massive infusion of Latinate blood with the Norman invasion, and then picked up its sticky fingers later as English speakers did a lot of exploration, there are often numerous ways to say the same thing with slight variations: kingly, regal and royal all have slightly different shadings that might be hard to convey to speakers of other languages. The reason it gets so hard to pin down what doesn't translate readily is because no one is in a position to compare every language simultaneously. In the course of my work, I use several languages fairly regularly and have always noticed that there are some single words in English that require longer constructions elsewhere: counterclockwise seems to be something like in the opposite direction from a clock's hands in several languages. Weirdly, the only single-word synonym I can think of for it is the archaic English widdershins. Still, there are thousands of languages of which I know nothing, and for all I know they all have single-word translations of clockwise.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:14 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Im not sure what it is. I imagine that same word can be used to describe that feeling of depression that you get when it's time to pack up and head home from a great vacation?
posted by winks007 at 9:23 AM on March 14, 2009


"Ineffable"
posted by Aquaman at 9:26 AM on March 14, 2009


I guess the feeling of getting packed to leave after a fantastic holiday could be described as nostalgia?

Also: melancholy, as in, taking a down payment on future sadness. I've also seen the words "achingly beautiful" used, I believe.
posted by NekulturnY at 9:27 AM on March 14, 2009


Are there phrases/words/concepts that are easy in English, but difficult to describe in another language?
Two words I have never been able to translate properly in French are 'fluffy' and 'peachy'. That is because they represent more than just descrptions, but concepts as well.
So yes, there are always words or concepts that cannot be translated, but you often find something approximate enough to be okay.

Is there a word or phrase in any language that describes a moment that is so perfect that it makes you sad, either because it will eventually end or because every moment can't be that perfect?
Another vote for 'achingly beautiful' for that one. I guess you could tweak it to 'achingly perfect', though it does not ring as well.

How about a word for a moment that is so perfect that "words can't describe it"?
I believe that is why there is such a word as 'indescribable' or 'unspeakable', though they lack poetry in English and the latter has negative connotations.
posted by tweemy at 12:02 PM on March 14, 2009


Re: simple words which require a complex string in English:

How about "ethanaiyavathu"?

This is a Tamil question word that describes where in an order something comes.... (e.g. 1st, 2nd, 34rd) essentially the concept "how manyth" rather than how many.
posted by inbetweener at 12:48 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Poignant?
posted by orsonet at 1:06 PM on March 14, 2009


I use the phrase "instant nostalgia" - looking back with longing at something that's happening right now. I thought I'd made this up but Google proves me wrong.
posted by zanni at 1:19 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


If its so perfect, then you wouldn't be sad. So the perfectness must go as soon as this feeling creeps in. Even though you might be there there you miss the perfectness. Kind of like Saudade
posted by jcwilliams at 1:31 PM on March 14, 2009


"Unheimlich"--feeling simultaneously at home and strange, the root, source of the fantastic in literature. The closest translation in English is the Uncanny, which is really far-off from the true word. Maria Tatar introduced this word to me and a bunch of other undergrads long ago. I speak French, but not German (verboten, so to speak, in my house), but to this day I associate the feeling of strange/familiar, home/not home with this German word. Unheimlich.
posted by emhutchinson at 2:19 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do you know any other cool phrases (in any language) that can't be expressed compactly in English?

There's a Hebrew word, titchadesh, which means something like "Congratulations on your new thing." My Hebrew teacher in college said it to me once when I got a new watch.

Also, I recently came upon the Hebrew word machatonim, which is apparently what your daughter or son's in-laws are to you.

(My Hebrew's pretty weak, so someone please correct me if I'm not doing these words justice.)
posted by rebel_rebel at 2:38 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


so it describes looking forward to an event?... I have no idea how to pronounce it, btw.

Yes, it is used to describe feeling happy about something good that is going to happen. How to pronounce.... hmmm.... try for-vent-ning-s-gleh-dh (not really though... danish is tough).
posted by alchemist at 2:48 PM on March 14, 2009


Shaddenfruede (sp) German for finding joy in others' misfortunes (loosely.)
posted by prodevel at 4:02 PM on March 14, 2009


English doesn't have a simple vernacular way to distinguish between "spicy-hot" (picante) and "temperature-hot" (caliente). I blame English cooking.
posted by Quietgal at 6:11 PM on March 14, 2009


Looks like I'm late, but seconding They Have a Word For It and The Meaning of Tingo. That is all.
posted by silentbicycle at 6:52 PM on March 14, 2009


English once used to be a much more synthetic language, meaning that words carried more bits of meaning to them, and syntax was less important. Over the centuries English lost almost all its case markings, developed prepositions, and traded its complex morphology for some heady syntax. Today, English is fairly analytic, meaning there is more of a 1-to-1 correspondence between a word and a single meaning.

Many of the words cited above, and the examples you're looking for, come from languages that are more synthetic, meaning they're packing a whole lot of meaning (re: entire phrases) into a single 'word'.

There's no value judgment here; neither system ranks higher than the other. I just wanted to throw this out there to help explain why it seems English is lacking this 'superword' feature. (It isn't; it just does in a 'phrase' what some other languages can sum up in a 'word', which is what you observed in your original posting.)
posted by iamkimiam at 9:49 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jackie Wilson gave you a neologism: Nowstalgia.
posted by oddovid at 5:15 AM on March 15, 2009


How about the other way around?

I've heard that "awkward" doesn't really translate into any other language. It becomes 'funny' or 'uncomfortable' or 'weird,' but none of those are quite the same.
posted by shadowfelldown at 8:09 AM on March 15, 2009


'Sehnsucht'
posted by davemack at 6:37 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


With English, everything is made up of drawn out phrases and clauses, or so it seems when compared to German,

I had to laugh at that, because to me, German words ARE drawn out phrases and clauses. That's why some of them are so dang long.

I can't support "poignant' or "ineffable" because they don't have the meaning the OP requests. The closest so far is "bittersweet," but that simply means sad and happy at the same time, not the reason one feels that way.
posted by Piscean at 10:53 PM on March 15, 2009


How about a word for a moment that is so perfect that "words can't describe it"?

I would call such a moment "sublime."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:42 AM on March 16, 2009


Seconding poignant.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:02 AM on March 17, 2009


OK, this may not be exactly what you are looking for -- but I would recommend looking into J.R.R. Tolkien's concept of eucatastrophe.
posted by fantine at 11:32 AM on March 17, 2009


In English sometimes its more complicated to describe relationships such as mother in law, father in law, brother in law equivalents for people who aren't actually married... "the brother of the guy I'm dating/my boyfriend's brother". I think some languages make that easier, describing the relationship without the legality.
posted by nzydarkxj at 7:28 AM on March 18, 2009


In Portuguese we have the word "saudade", and the English translations never do it justice.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:16 PM on August 5, 2009


You may find this BBC article interesting.

And there is this other one (Google translated from Portuguese) which mentions a bunch of other words from various languages which are hard to translate.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:28 PM on August 5, 2009


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