Words that don’t exist in English

Language is endlessly fascinating.  I’ve been hooked ever since I found out as a small child that Inuits have hundreds of words for snow.  In reality they don’t actually have many more words for snow than us, they just create compound words to increase their vocabulary, but the idea that a language reflects the experience of the people who speak it has stayed with me.

Sometimes I come across a word that I wish had an equivalent in English, because I know it would be useful.  Like the Japanese word Age-otori, which means to look worse after a haircut.  Why do we not have such a word?  I know I’ve had haircuts that could be described by this.

Other times, the foreign word has no equivalent because the concept is so uniquely of that country.  Take Arigata-meiwaku, another Japanese word.  It describes an act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude.  For me this perfectly sums up my view of the Japanese as being hyper sensitive about social convention.

Another word that, to me, is uniquely of that country, is the Russian word toska.  It’s described by Vladmir Nabokov thus:  At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.  In England, we’re just bored.  In Russia, one has a dull ache of the soul.

In Indonesian there’s a word, jayus, which means a joke which is so unfunny, it makes us laugh.  This is presumably very useful for Indonesian parents of children under the age of seven and should definitely have an English equivalent.

When we were in Northern Thailand, we stayed in an Akha hilltribe village in the jungle.  The guesthouse manager had been helping an anthropologist to create an Akha dictionary.  It was fascinatingly full of words that have no proper equivalent in English, many of them jungle related.  But the one that stuck with me most, the meaning, not the word, which sadly I’ve forgotten, is to hold the hand of a person as they’re dying.  I would like to live in a society which has that word.

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12 comments
  1. I think I would like to live in a society with that word too.

    • Victoria said:

      It’s a good word isn’t it?

    • Victoria said:

      Thank you :)

    • Victoria said:

      It’s so very Russian isn’t it?

  2. Oh, that last one is particularly beautiful.

    Off the top of my head I recall Oz Clarke talking about the French word terroir, meaning the conditions wine grapes are grown under, e.g. soil, slope, altitude, direction etc.

    • Victoria said:

      Oh yes, I’ve heard that one too.

  3. Kelly said:

    This was so interesting. I love traveling the world through your eyes, ears, brain and then words.

    • Victoria said:

      Thank you x

  4. Muddling Along said:

    I love the bad haircut phase – definitely had one of those

    Latin has some wonderful words in, from memory there is a special word for the type of person who is terribly kind to an old person in the hope that they’ll receive a meaningful legacy (and this was an approved career path…)

    Also love how words have developed – for example the French word for head comes from the vulgar latin for a wine container – the round shape with the handles looking a bit like a head I assume

    Is fascinating how language has moved and evolved

    • Victoria Wallop said:

      It IS fascinating. I could read about it all day.

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