15 Untranslatable Words

Words from Other Cultures that Are Impossible to Translate

'Lost in translation' means a word which is elegantly expresses an idea in one language, but doesn't have the same meaning when translated into another.  Here are examples where a single foreign word or phrase conveys the concept, but all attempts at translation into English leave something missing.

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1. Age-otori (Japanese word)Age-otori

Ever asked a fiend or family member to trim your locks?  If you look worse after the cut than before, then a Japanese would say that you have been subject to 'Age-otori'.

2. Cafuné (Brazilian concept)

The act of tenderly running one's fingers through someone's hair.

3. Prozvonit (Czech technique)

This is a Czech concept meaning to call a mobile phone, and let it ring once so that the other person will call back; the point is that it saves the first caller money.

Will and Guy hate answering the phone, so we have a variation:  A special code: ring 5 times then hang up; the other person knows it's a friend who wants them to pick-up when they ring again 30 seconds later.

4. Pochemuchka (Russian preoccupation)

A busybody who asks lots of questions.  Someone who makes too many enquires.

5. Jayus (Indonesian word)

Telling a joke so badly that the audience start laughing at the joke-teller rather than the joke itself.  Why do seagulls fly over seas? Because if they flew over bays they would be called bagels!  (bay gulls).

6. Hyggelig (Danish concept)

This word describes the feelings of warmth, openness and comfort that you get when you're amongst friends. 

There are similar words in other cultures: Hiraeth in Welsh, where the emphasis is more on sadness, longing for the fatherland. 

Sally tells us the Spanish have a similar word called Saudade, again the emphasis is on wishing for someone you have lost.  The point is there is no single word in English meaning Hyggelig.


7. Tsundoku (Japanese word)

The act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other unread books.

8. Tartle (Scottish idiom)

This word describes hesitating while introducing a colleague because you've forgotten his name. I often tartle, when I have to introduce a newbie!  Will and Guy call tartle thingummyjig.

9. Schadenfreude (German)

The pleasure a Welshman, Scotsman or Irishman gets from seeing the English national team in any sport lose to anyone, especially a Celt! 

Generally, Schadenfreude is the delight gained from witnessing another's misfortune.

10. Waldeinsamkeit (German Concept)

The idea of not only being alone, but being at one with nature; typically on a mountain top or deep in the woods.

11. Iktsuarpok (Inuit obsession)

Keep on going outside to check if anyone is coming.

12. Tingo Pascuense (Easter Island custom)

Acquiring objects one desires from the house of a relative, or friend, by gradually borrowing them.  Tingo Pascuense is generally a female affliction; the male version is scrounging tools.


13. Toyi-toyi (Ndebele also Toy-Toy)

Typical African way of protesting by singing and dancing.

14. Flâner (Parisienne word)

Strutting around Paris, supposedly for the pleasure of enjoying the city.  Will and Guy have a word for this: POSING.

15. L'Esprit d'escalier (French put down)

Translated literally L'Esprit d'escalier means, "staircase wit."   You only think of the riposte as you have walked away down a flight of stairs.

See more funny put downs »


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