Express Myself In Another Language
April 1, 2010 6:00 AM   Subscribe

What are your favorite non-english words or expressions that do not have a close English equivalent? I am looking for different ways to look at the world.....from around the world.
posted by jasondigitized to Writing & Language (66 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
Torschlusspanik - German - The fear of diminishing opportunity as one ages or the fear of an opportunity rapidly closing, literally "shut gate panic".
posted by The Whelk at 6:04 AM on April 1, 2010 [14 favorites]

Weltschmerz - world hurt
Simpatico - like friend, but closer -- twins of the same soul sort of thing
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:07 AM on April 1, 2010

"Gleich fällt der Watschenbaum um" is a (mildly) violent threat in German (Bavarian, actually), which means: "Careful, the slap-tree is going to fall soon!" This is usually directed towards children, who are also said to be "shaking the slap-tree" (Den Watschenbaum schütteln) when they're not behaving properly.
I don't know whether there are any "slap-trees" in other parts of the world; it always seemed a uniquely bavarian expression to me!
posted by The Toad at 6:09 AM on April 1, 2010 [13 favorites]

posted by cider at 6:09 AM on April 1, 2010

Oh, and of course schadenfreude -- joy in the misfortunes of others.

I don't know what it is about the Germans that makes them so good at this.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:10 AM on April 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Also looking for expressions, aphorisms, etc.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:12 AM on April 1, 2010

Pahses I've learned from metafilter

Have your cake and eat it too in Latvia
posted by The Whelk at 6:19 AM on April 1, 2010

In Italian, a common phrase is "in bocca al lupo"; this is a way of wishing someone luck, in the same vein as "break a leg". It literally translates to "in the mouth of the wolf", and the only acceptable answer is "crepi", which is the imperative form of the verb "crepare", meaning "to kick the bucket", used as a reply in the sense of hoping the wolf dies. (sorry for the garbled explanation!)
posted by ellieBOA at 6:31 AM on April 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another nice Bavarian expression is "I bin ja ned auf da Brennsuppn dahergschwommen" - "I didn't come here swimming through flour soup" - this is a colorful way to point out that you're "not a complete idiot". (I assume it's Brennsuppn/flour soup because that used to be the food of very poor/uneducated people)
posted by The Toad at 6:32 AM on April 1, 2010

Mono no aware. Languagehat talks about it here, and he points to a nice little essay here. It's a three-word summation for most poems ever written about spring flowers: a thing is beautiful, which makes me happy, but it's about to die, which makes me sad, and it's sad that it makes me happy and I'm happy that it makes me sad.
posted by Valet at 6:38 AM on April 1, 2010 [18 favorites]

'Oy!' comes to mind.

From Korean, 'ah-ee-go', which said quickly sounds like 'I go' - both that and 'Oy!' mean about the same thing.
posted by chrisinseoul at 6:40 AM on April 1, 2010

The Swedish word "orka" (meaning to have the strength/energy to do) doesn't have any casual, concise equivalent in English -- you have to say that you can't be bothered to do something, or that you're too tired to do it. In Swedish, you'd say something like "I don't orka clean my room tonight!"
posted by martinrebas at 6:46 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Förmiddag" - there's morning in english, then there's afternoon. Our mornings end at somewhere around nine, and the hours between then and lunch are "förmiddag". It is not morning, it is not lunch, it is not afternoon. Is there a word for this in english?

We also have "eftermiddag" (afternoon) which is roughly the hours after lunch until 5 o'clock, when it becomes "kväll" (night). för is "before", efter is "after" and "middag" is the old word for lunch.
posted by dabitch at 6:49 AM on April 1, 2010

Also, to spin on martinrebas "orka" you can actually use that word alone as a response. "Hey, why haven't you numbered all these items?" "Ameh... orka..." ("Meh cantbebothered")
posted by dabitch at 6:50 AM on April 1, 2010

A similar question was posed on Monkeyfilter a few years ago, yielding many interesting responses.
posted by itstheclamsname at 6:54 AM on April 1, 2010

“The Dutch word gezellig can be described as a cozy, communal feeling, like the warm sensation one has surrounded by good friends at a long meal, with the conversation flowing. The energy of a good party—that is also gezellig. This concept is not about being merely efficient or transactional in our daily interactions, but instead places importance on feeling a connection with each other.”

"Gezellig can also be used to indicate the exact opposite of gezellig. Listen to the tone in which it is spoken."
posted by mireille at 7:04 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perkele- Finnish Profanity that cannot be adequately explained in English. Originally the name of one of the original Supreme Gods, but now it's come to be a profanity.

Sisu - Sort of guts, intensity, courage, strength of will, but deeper than any of the individual words.
posted by Lord_Pall at 7:05 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fachidiot ... "specialty idiot" -- someone who's very trained in a particular field but totally oblivious to everything else. Can be used mockingly, or pityingly, as when someone is laid off and doesn't have the flexibility or broad skills to find another job because they spent too many years honing their fachidiot abilities.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:06 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Russian mat word "khuynya." Literally "dickery" (except using a word for 'dick' with an obscenity-level the English language doesn't really have) but it's used like a much stronger and more obscene "bullshit."
posted by griphus at 7:08 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Scots has some great ones. Dreich, for the kind of grey/rainy/gloomy/cold weather that makes you quietly despair when you look out of the window in the morning; smirr is a very fine kind of rain.
posted by Catseye at 7:11 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've read that the Spanish word 'duende' doesn't have a good English translation.
posted by troywestfield at 7:11 AM on April 1, 2010

"Förmiddag" - there's morning in english, then there's afternoon. Our mornings end at somewhere around nine, and the hours between then and lunch are "förmiddag". It is not morning, it is not lunch, it is not afternoon. Is there a word for this in english?

"Forenoon" is the word in English. I used to hear it from my retired-farmer family members and neighbors. Yankee had a piece years ago about how you never hear it anymore. (Yankee itself has changed almost beyond recognition, but that's another story.)

Nthing gezellig.
posted by jgirl at 7:25 AM on April 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Menschenkenntnis I don't know if there is any comparable word in English. It's the ability that most have to acquire by experience, to gauge other people and situations with people. So a person with little Menschenkenntnis wouldn't "get" that someone is only interested in his money, or is only talking bullshit etc.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:26 AM on April 1, 2010

This blog has a nice discussion of the French use of the word "putain" as a swear word. It literally translates as "whore," but as I understand it, it's sort of the closest French equivalent to "fuck" in terms of commonly used profanity that shows up in all sorts of usages.
posted by dnash at 7:32 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Gesundheit! Literally means healthiness. When we say it it means God Bless You (after a sneeze)
posted by Gungho at 7:41 AM on April 1, 2010

Another useful swedish one is dygn, a 24-hour period. So much more precise for rentals and bragging. "I haven't slept in 3 dygn!".
posted by Iteki at 7:44 AM on April 1, 2010

I like the Japanese "genki desu ka," which more or less means "how are you?" but genki means both health and a positive, energetic outlook. More or less.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:00 AM on April 1, 2010

Darshan means to see something or make eye contact, and it also means to get the blessing of something or receive love from something through that eye contact.
posted by alms at 8:14 AM on April 1, 2010

Ever seen something so cute you just want to squeeze it?


another reference
posted by amtho at 8:40 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Awesome jgirl, thanks for scratching my forenoon itch, I'm going to employ that word LOTS now.

Nthing Gezellig - which has a Danish cousin in the word Hygge. Like Gezellig, hygge can be used sarcastically. Swedes do not have a word that means the same thing. We do have another fun one: lagom - it's a measure. "How many sugars in your coffee?" "Lagom" "How fast were you driving?" "Lagom" - it means basically "Just right" but can be applied to anything: "she had lagom much makeup on."
posted by dabitch at 9:06 AM on April 1, 2010

Plaatsvervangende schaamte--shame felt on behalf of another. Cringe!
posted by everichon at 9:28 AM on April 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

闖 (chuǎng)--"The Shuowen Jiezi glosses the character as "馬出門皃。引申爲突兀驚人之辭" which means I think 'a horse coming through a door, and thus by extension a word for a sudden, frightening occurrence.'"

Stolen almost whole from Abiezer's comment.
posted by everichon at 9:31 AM on April 1, 2010

"Va' fa Napoli" is Italian for "go to Naples," but it's used to mean "go fuck yourself."
posted by kirkaracha at 9:37 AM on April 1, 2010

One of my favorites, though I couldn't find a solid definition so I'm not sure if the meaning is apocryphal or I'm spelling it wrong:

funktionslust -- the love of the thing for that which it does best. I think of it when I see my dog running full out and her front paws come up higher than her head.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:37 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Ko bubreg u loju". A Serbian expression, literally means "like a kidney in lard", and used to express great comfort. As in "Happy as a kidney in lard."

*To be perfectly grammatically correct it should be "kao bubreg u loju", but that's a tad too formal.
posted by Dragonness at 9:41 AM on April 1, 2010

The word I most frequently wish there was an English equivalent for is forelsket (Norwegian). It literally means enamored, but it connotes all the lovely feelings when you first fall in love - the butterflies in your stomach, the inability to focus on anything else, the prematurity before the serious stage kicks in. Such a lovely word.
posted by widdershins at 9:47 AM on April 1, 2010

In French:

dommage=one word to say: "That's a shame." "Too bad." "What a pity." "Bummer."

désolé=again one word to say: "I'm so sorry." "Sorry I bumped into you." "So sorry I put a major dent in your car, and bumped your little dog while stealing the parking place you wanted."

What's great about désolé is that it defuses store/sidewalk/road rage most of the time.

simpa=great vibe in a place characterized by a magical, non-formulaic combination of laughter, conversation, tinkling glasses, and fun without anyone going crazy loud or ugly drunk.
posted by Elsie at 9:55 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Indonesian word "Terlalu!" on its own can be a response to something being said or done that is great/funny/mildly overwhelming in some way - it kind of translates to "Too much!" like it's more than the speaker can handle or believe.

Also, the Japanese term wabi-sabi.
posted by illenion at 10:02 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the French category, "coup de foudre" is great. A 'coup' is a blow and foudre is lightning, so the best literal translation would be a lightning bolt, I suppose. But the most similar expression in English (as far as I can tell) is "love at first sight," which feels sort of weak in comparison.

From the French wikipedia entry:
Un coup de foudre est une expression francophone qui désigne le fait de tomber subitement en admiration amoureuse pour une personne ou pour une chose. C'est un phénomène presque mythique des notions amoureuses, et considéré comme un idéal romantique.
posted by nicoleincanada at 10:12 AM on April 1, 2010

I like the deutsche tschüss which I hear as a cross between Good-bye, Dismissed, and Be Seeing You.
posted by Rash at 10:26 AM on April 1, 2010


Magari can mean "maybe" (magari vengo domani = maybe I'll come tomorrow), but used just on its own as an interjection/reply it is untranslatable: Do you think Berlusconi will lose the elections? Magari! translates as "If only!", "That would be great!", "Let's hope so!", etc.

Ti voglio bene (kids/SMS-speak: TVB) (literally "I wish you every good thing"; "I wish well for you") is half-way towards "I love you", but not quite there. It's a little like the US "I love you" in its halfway sense, not quite "I would like to marry you and spend the rest of my life with you" (which is what "I love you" means in UK English), but it's pretty stong. A slightly enhanced version is "Ti voglio tanto bene" (SMS: TVTB).
posted by aqsakal at 10:33 AM on April 1, 2010

I've read that the Spanish word 'duende' doesn't have a good English translation.

Indeed! And what a great word it is. The word was made quite famous by Lorca. Duende is like that thing, you know, that thing that makes Miles Davis so damn good.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:38 AM on April 1, 2010

Also a lot of German philosophy - esp. words like Dasein, Geist (or Weltgeist, et al.).
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:40 AM on April 1, 2010

I was interested to learn after I met my partner that I am a schussel--googling finds definitions like "dolt" and "scatterbrain," but he learned it from his Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother and the meaning is "a person who works quickly but carelessly."
posted by not that girl at 11:10 AM on April 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

In Nepali (and maybe Hindi) there's a phrase 'Ke garne' (that might be phonetic rather than a proper spelling) that's a kind of expletive that means literally "What to do?!" and is used to express a kind of humorous frustration at events that are beyond ones control.
posted by elendil71 at 11:15 AM on April 1, 2010

the Portuguese word Saudade always baffles translators. The sweet torture/love you feel for someone/something you miss... but so much more than that.
posted by Neekee at 11:17 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the word I so darnedly wishes existed in English is an equivalent for the French "Dessinateur". Basically, it's the job of someone who draws. It is different from saying you are an "illustrator" because unlike the latter it implies the medium you use, you know, like a Painter paints... but you can't say you are a Drawer because that's furniture. XD
An illustrator might be a painter that does paintings to illustrate but being a "dessinateur" means you draw- pencils, markers, those are your tools of the trade.
You can be a "dessinateur" of anything: you can draw portraits, or concept art, or sketches, or comics...

Speaking of comics. Here is another word I miss: "Bandes-Dessinées" or in short, "BDs". "Comic" is a work that implies comicality, a medium that one shouldn't take seriously, "kids" stuff... Even "superhero comics" still do not sound serious.
But there is a lot of serious BDs, especially coming from Europe (the French calling bande-dessinées the 7th Art- it's not something they treat like kid stuff), with gorgeous and detailed art to drop your jaw and adult, intricate stories, and to call them "Comics" is rather insulting. There is "graphic novel", yes, but it doesn't quite convey the real essence of BDs. You are not reading a book that was put into images or whatever "graphic novel" brings to mind...

Otherwise, I liked the discussion about those words for different parts of the day. You made me remember I also find English lacking in this regard. Morning goes up until noon and often afternoon and evening are used as if they were one and the same...

In French, there is "matin" > "morning" (you can even say "petit matin" > "little morning" which means the very earliest hours of the morning period), then avant-midi > "before noon", then "midi" > "noon", then "après-midi" > "afternoon", then "soir/soirée" > "evening", then nuit > "night"...
posted by CelebrenIthil at 11:43 AM on April 1, 2010

The flip side of schadenfreude would seem to be mudita, joy in the good fortune of others.

According to my former metalworking teacher, "meesnickle" (spelling uncertain) is German/Austrian/Alsatian/something-in-that-general-area for "the innate perversity of inanimate objects". Basically, meesnickle is the motivating force behind Murphy's Law.
posted by Lexica at 12:09 PM on April 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

In Arabic, khalas, with the "kh" pronounced with the throat-clearing "h."

It's used to mean something is completely and irrevocably done, finished, over. I've heard it used to relate that people are done with relationships, negotiations, jobs, cars, an appliance that's getting old.
posted by ambient2 at 12:32 PM on April 1, 2010

French-Canadian profanity uses a lot of church related words as substitutes. A literal translation to English doesn't really sound like swearing.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:17 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Japanese, natsukashii is nostalgia, and the emotion you feel when something makes you nostalgic, and a way to describe the object or situation which made you feel that way.

It actually rewired my thinking just slightly, so that I find myself wanting to say "that makes me feel really nostalgic" which sounds pretty odd.

And ganbatte (an imperative tense of ganbaru) is used to mean try your best, good luck, I have faith in you, and works anywhere from quietly pre-exam, firmly to a woman in labour or to scream at a sports team.
posted by fizban at 1:19 PM on April 1, 2010

I like the German "sprachgefühl" which literally means "language feeling". It applies to someone who understands the sounds and nuances of the language they are speaking.

I also like the German "nicht wahr?" and the French "n'est-ce pas?" meaning, "isn't that so?" We don't really have an equivalent in English, although here in Canada, we use "eh" (good doughnuts, eh?)
posted by LauraJ at 2:44 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kehdata is a Finnish verb I've found myself explaining to foreigners at length - by itself, it means to have the audacity or disregard of social norms or conventions to do something, and it usually carries a nuance of disapproval or cringing. Someone who kehtaa is embarrassing her/himself or behaving in an undignified way without realizing it.

Conversely, to not kehdata is to be too embarrassed, shy or aware of the inappropriateness of something to do something. In the dialect I grew up surrounded by, a suggestion to do something even slightly socially risky would be answered by a laconically muttered "ei kehtaa" (=[one] doesn't kehdata).
posted by sively at 4:05 PM on April 1, 2010

No love yet for the German word "doch"?
posted by mynameisluka at 5:28 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

expressions, eh? i can't remember if this is just weird coincidence or actual etymological connection, but in korean when you apologize to someone you say something like "please accept my [exact same word as the one for 'apple']." i always loved the idea of saying i'm sorry by saying "please accept my apple." there's another common phrase too, something like "this food is so good i would let two, no three men starve in my presence before sharing it."

you totally need some Yiddish words too. my favorite.

i can't promise the following are accurate; i wrote them down from my french workbook in high school over 10 years ago because i thought they were charming, but i don't know if actual french people use them this way, or if i misunderstood anything (as in, some might just be homophones and not have the charming colorful double meanings i imagine). a little help?

faire l'ane pour avoir du son=to pretend ignorance to achieve one's end
entre chien et loup (between dog and wolf)=at twilight
etre gris (to be gray)=to be tipsy
faire grise mine=to look anything but pleased
pleurer comme une vache (to cry like a cow)=to blubber
un blanc bec=a determined person who lacks experience
la colere bleue=towering (blue) rage
ca mettra du beurre dans les epinards (it'll put butter in the spinach)=that'll make life more comfortable
long comme un jour sans pain=as long as a month of Sundays
ne pas avoir un radis (to not have a radish)=to be stone broke
il ne vous arrive pas a la cheville=he can't hold a candle to you
les pattes de mouche (fly legs)=scrawled handwriting
posted by ifjuly at 8:37 PM on April 1, 2010

I'm a big fan of the german "Spannung", which translates to "Tension", but it's more like "Good tension", like what makes good athletes and singers and musicians good - Spannung in all the right places.
posted by sdis at 11:37 PM on April 1, 2010

sdis, isn't "Spannung" equivalent to "suspense"? (I'm not sure myself...) I like the adjective "spannend" though, "suspenseful" is not a nice word IMHO
posted by The Toad at 1:38 AM on April 2, 2010

Oh man I have NO idea how to spell this, but in Piedmontese, there is this word that sounds like "moo-shahd" that me and my family LOVE. We use it all the time. It means kinda... tired in a sad way. Almost like melancholy, but both physical and mental feeling. Just... not able to get it together because you're bummed about something but you dont even know really WHY you're bummed, and you just want to hide in your bed with the covers over your head.

it just so perfectly captures how we feel sometimes. God I love Piedmontese. So many great words.
posted by silverstatue at 8:33 AM on April 2, 2010

There's a Low German phrase, fir am mosh, which translates literally as 'fire in the bum.' It's used to describe being severely irritated by something or someone, and it just won't go away.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:22 AM on April 2, 2010

The Toad: Yeah, Spannung also works as a synonym with suspense, but more the tension that causes suspense.
posted by sdis at 2:24 PM on April 3, 2010

Arki is a Finnish noun that refers to "ordinary time" or "ordinary activity". In a more specific sense it refers to weekdays (as opposed to weekends), but weekend moments can quite well fall under the category of arki (in the more general sense), if there's nothing special going on.
posted by Anything at 8:48 PM on April 3, 2010

Arki is also a very, very commonly used and unremarkable word, which is why you wouldn't use words like 'the mundane' as a simple replacement.
posted by Anything at 8:53 PM on April 3, 2010

In Kannada, Hane baraha, literally 'written on your forehead', means the bad thing that is happening to you now has been preordained due to bad karma/ fate/destiny.
posted by dhruva at 4:28 PM on April 4, 2010

I realize I am a bit late, but this is a neat question so here are some I like:

"Kolay Gelsin" Turkish. Literally I think it means something like "may it come easy", but the idea is that it's a phrase that you can say when you see someone working hard (I always saw it used in situations with tough physical labor) and there's a kind of implied respect which is nice.

"Cynefin" Welsh. The best explanation I read was "a place where a creature feels it ought to live." When I saw it used in a book it was meant to describe how sheep will return to a particular spot in a field to give birth.

"Vukojebina" Serbian. "Middle of nowhere" or more explicitly "Place where the wolves fuck". As I understand it this is a word used to describe a good place to commit a crime - in my mind a good example would be the wooded location depicted on the cover of the movie "Miller's Crossing"

Also seconding "Sisu" - good word.
posted by Horatius at 11:02 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

ambient2: "In Arabic, khalas, with the "kh" pronounced with the throat-clearing "h."

Glad someone brought up Arabic. Hebrew also has a few of these, but the first that comes to mind is davka - דווקא - which sort of means to do something on purpose, with spite/in your face, but is far richer than that.
posted by yiftach at 9:51 PM on May 3, 2010

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