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Our Favourite Untranslatable Words

  • By Sam Sedgman
  • 8th February 2013
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For our “Migration Stories” event we asked you to contribute your favourite untranslatable words – and you outdid yourselves! We couldn’t get through all of the suggestions on the night, so we decided to share some of our favourites with you here. Which do you like? And can you think of some good ones we’ve missed? Tweet us @freewordcentre to let us know.


Gigil (Filipino) – The irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze something cute.


Neidbau (German) – A building constructed with the sole purpose of inconveniencing a neighbour in some way.


Oppholdsvær (Norwegian) – The weather when it's not raining; a dry spell.


Qualunquismo (Italian) – Apathy and indifference towards politics.


Tartle (Scottish) – The act of hesitating on forgetting someone’s name.


Uitwaaien (Dutch) – Literally ‘to walk in the wind’: to take a brief break outside to clear one’s head.


Sehnsucht (German) – A sense of longing. A nostalgia for something that can still happen – (a concept loved by German Idealist philosophers).


Zhaghzhagh (Persian) – Chattering of the teeth.


Waldeinsamkeit (German) – The feeling of being peacefully alone in the woods.


Kummerspeck (German) – “Grief Bacon”, or the weight you put on from comfort eating.


с легким паром / s legkim parom – (Russian) “With a light steam”: a friendly remark made to someone who's just come from the bath.


Hiraeth (Welsh) – Homesickness for a place you can never return to, or that never was.


风韵 / fengyun (Chinese) – “Wind sound”, or (a woman's) charm.


Like these? See more of our favourite untranslatable words.


We’re always looking for more words to add to our collection: beautiful words, sad words, untranslatable words, words that make you angry and words that make you smile – tweet your favourites to @freewordcentre and we'll help them spread.

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  • Luisa

    Portuguese – saudade: sometimes translated as ‘nostalgia’ but thats not quute correct. Saudade refers to the intense feeling of missing someone who is absent, be it a loved one (deceased or absent) a pet, whatever. It can refer to a place, activity, time period…

  • Mikael Grut

    In Swedish there are a couple of hundred words which are not translatable into English, e.g.:
    dygn = a 24-hour cycle of day and night.
    lagom = just right; e.g. “lagom” warm.
    morbror, farbror etc = mother’s brother etc.
    jo = yes, after a negative question.
    halt = with a limp.
    drulle = clumsy fool.
    … and so on

  • Cristina Leston-Bandeira

    I support Luisa’s suggestion. This is such a key Portuguese word. Any Portuguese will tell you that this is what defines us: the ability to understand what “saudade” means. A sense of something missing; missing someone, missing an experience, a feeling, a place. Attached to very melancholic tones; very often associated to the traditional music of Fado.

  • Richard

    I suggest terroir should go on the list

  • Lesley Ingram

    cwtch from the welsh. It is a hug, cuddle or snuggle, but more than that, as it also means the feeling of a safe place or home that the hug/cuddle/snuggle gives.

  • CT

    Startijenn (Breton): a kick of energy, like putting fuel in your engine, also denotes strength in the face of adversity.

  • chantal

    Sranan tongo (Surinames creole language): the word POPTJIE PATU refers to imaginary cooking while playing house. The word POPTJIE means doll and PATU means pot / pan. I have not yet come accross a word in another language that describes this.

  • Brendan English

    Doch! German. Used as a stand alone contradiction of any negative statement. Also (possibly technically a separate word) as a general fill in or punctuation mostly in speech.

  • Lucy

    I think the spelling and definition of the Norwegian word are slightly off. The word itself should be written “oppholdsvær” (the penultimate letter is the Norwegian “æ” rather than “oe” as written)and the definition is simply a dry interval. There’s no implication that it has just rained and no indication of when it might rain again. All the word tells you for certain is that it is not raining now. At the risk of stating the obvious, I also feel honour bound to point out that the word “Norwegian” is misspelt.

  • Angharad Guy

    Thanks for pointing those typos out, Lucy. I’ve made some adjustments. Our previous definition for this word pops up in a few places – it must be one of those urban myths. Glad to have it straightened out – a word for ‘not raining’ is nice too.

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