University of East London psychology lecturer Tim Lomas has corralled some of the most striking non-English words about emotions for Westerners to appreciate. While the words describe phenomena experienced and celebrated by many cultures, no easily-expressible equivalents exist in English.
The paper has two main aims. First, it aims to provide a window onto cultural differences in constructions of well-being, thereby enriching our understanding of well-being. Second, a more ambitious aim is that this lexicon may help expand the emotional vocabulary of English speakers (and indeed speakers of all languages), and consequently enrich their experiences of well-being.
Many of these (like zeitgeist, chutzpa, savoir-faire and nirvana) are in common English usage. I’ve excerpted some of the ones I found most interesting…
- Se déhancher (French, v.): to sway or wiggle one’s hips (e.g., while dancing).
- Desbundar (Portuguese, v.): shedding one’s inhibitions in having fun.
- Feierabend (German, n.): festive mood at the end of a working day.
- Mbuki-mvuki (Bantu, v): to shed clothes to dance uninhibited.
- Pretoogjes (Dutch, n.): lit. ‘fun eyes’; the eyes of a chuckling person engaging in benign mischief.
- Ramé (Balinese, n.): something at once chaotic and joyful.
- Samar (سمر) (Arabic, v.): to sit together in conversation at sunset/ in the evening.
- Schnapsidee (German, n.): a daft / ridiculous plan thought up while drunk (generally used pejoratively).
- Sobremesa (Spanish, n.): when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing.
- Sólarfrí (Icelandic, n.): sun holiday, i.e., when workers are granted unexpected time off to enjoy a particularly sunny/warm day.
- Tertulia (Spanish, n.): a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones.
- Utepils (Norwegian, n.): a beer that is enjoyed outside (particularly on the first hot day of the year).
- Mерак (Serbian, n.): pleasure derived from simple joys.
- Cwtch (Welsh, n.): to hug, a safe welcoming place.
- Trygghet (Swedish, n.): security, safety, confidence, certainty, trust.
- Estrenar (Spanish, v.): to use or wear something for the first time.
- Fjellvant (Norwegian) (adj.): Being accustomed to walk in the mountains.
- Flâneur (French, n.): someone who wanders the streets to experience the city.
- Hugfanginn (Icelandic) (adj.): lit. ‘mind-captured’, to be charmed or fascinated by someone/something.
- Shemomechama (შემომეჭამა) (Georgian, v.): eating past the point of satiety due to sheer enjoyment.
- Tyvsmake (Norwegian, v.): to taste or eat small pieces of the food when you think nobody is watching, especially when cooking.
- Kukelure (Norwegian, v.): to sit and ponder, without engaging in activity.
- Zanshin (残心) (Japanese, n.): a state of relaxed mental alertness (especially in the face of danger or stress).
- Nirvāna (निर्वाण) (Sanskrit, n.): ‘ultimate’ happiness, total liberation from suffering.
- Hahn (한) (Korean, n.): sorrow, regret, patiently waiting for amelioration.
- Iktsuarpok (Inuit, n.): anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, and keeps checking if they’re arriving.
- Þetta reddast (Icelandic, phrase): ‘it will all work out ok’ (used especially when things don’t look optimistic!).
- Dor (Romanian, n.): longing for a person, place, or thing that is out of reach and you love very much.
- Fernweh (German, n.): the ‘call of faraway places,’ homesickness for the unknown.
- Nakakahinayang (Tagalog, n.): a feeling of regret for not having used something or taken advantage of a situation.
- Tîeow (เที่ยว) (Thai, v.): to wander or roam around in a carefree way.
- Chiaroscuro (Italian, n.): dramatic contrasts of light and dark (usually pertaining to art).
- Kanso (簡素) (Japanese, n.): elegant simplicity, an attractive absence of clutter.
- Ah-un (阿吽) (Japanese, n.): unspoken communication between close friends, literally ‘the beginning and ending of something’.
- Cafune (Portuguese, n.): the act/gesture of tenderly running one’s fingers through a loved one’s hair.
- Famn (Swedish, n.): the area/space within two arms, e.g., ‘in my arms’.
- Frimousse (French, n.): a sweet/cute little face.
- Mamihlapinatapei (Yagán, n.): a look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire.
- Agape (ἀγάπη) (Greek, n.): selfless, unconditional, devotional love.
- S’apprivoiser (French, v.): lit, ‘to tame’, but a mutual process – both sides learning to trust/accept the other.
- Ongubsy (Boro, v.): ‘to love from the heart’.
- Onsay (Boro, v.): ‘to pretend to love’.
- Onsra (Boro, v.): ‘to love for the last time,’ the feeling that love won’t last.
- Razljubít (разлюбить) (Russian, n.): the feeling a person has for someone they once loved.
- Yuán fèn (緣分) (Chinese, n.): a relationship ordained by fate/destiny.
- Beau geste (French, n.): a graceful, noble or beautiful gesture (especially if it is futile or meaningless).
- Fremdschämen (German, n.): vicarious embarassment/shame; a cringing feeling.
- Kreng-jai (Thai, n.): ‘deferential heart,’ the wish to not trouble someone by burdening them.
- Pole (Swahili, interjection): ‘I’m sorry for your misfortune’.
- Tithadesh (תתחדש) (Hebrew, interjection): lit. ‘get new’; salutation given to someone who has acquired a nice new possession or change in circumstances.
- Apramāda (अप्रमाद) (Sanskrit; appamada in Pali, n.): moral watchfulness, awareness of the ethical implications of one’s actions.
- Giri (義理) (Japanese, n.): duty, obligation, a debt of honour.
- Imandari (الإستقامة) (Arabic, n.): ‘righteousness,’ cultivating good words and deeds.
- Tarbiya (تربية”) (Arabic, n.): on-going moral/ethical and spiritual development.
- Chai pani (चाय पानी) (Hindi/Urdu, n.): lit. ‘tea and water’; favours or money given to someone to get something done (similar to a ‘bribe’, but without a negative connotation).
- Ta’ârof (تعارف) (Farsi, n.): politeness, social intelligence (e.g., in relation to receiving/offering hospitality/gifts).
- Tzedaka (Yiddish, n.): generosity/charity (mandated by justice), required righteous giving.
- Commuovere (Italian, v.): to be moved, touched or affected (e.g., by a story).
- Enraonar (Catalan, v.): to discuss in a civilised, reasoned manner.
- Mokita (Kivila, n.): a truth that everone knows but no-one talks about.
- Talanoa (Fijian Hindi, v.): to tell stories / to gossip (in ways that serve as a ‘social adhesive’).
- Inuuqatigiittiarniq (Inuit, n.): being respectful of all people.
- Janteloven (Norwegian/Danish, n.): a set of rules which discourages individualism in communities.
- Radarpar (Norwegian, n.): Two people that work very well together.
- Að nenna (Icelandic, v.): ability or willingness to persevere through tasks that are hard or boring.
- Querencia (Spanish, n.): a place where one feels secure, from which one draws strength.
- Stehaufmännchen (German, n.): lit. a roly-poly toy, used for someone who always bounces back.
- Arrangiarsi (Italian): the ability to ‘make do’ or ‘get by’.
- Fingerspitzengefühl (German): ‘fingertip feeling,’ the ability to act with tact and sensitivity.
- Kombinować (Polish): working out an unusual solution to a problem, acquiring skills in the process.
- Sprezzatura (Italian): nonchalance, art and effort are concealed beneath a studied carelessness.
- Pochemuchka (почемучка) (Russian, n.): someone who is always asking questions (perhaps too many!).
- Won (원) (Korean, n.): reluctance to give up an illusion.
- Engentado (Spanish, v.): to be ‘peopled out’, to wish for solitude.
- Ilunga (Tshiluba): being ready to forgive a first time, tolerate a second time, but never a third time.
- Sunao (素直) (Japanese): meek, docile and submissive (in a positive, deferential way).
- Kintsugi (金継ぎ) (Japanese): literally, ‘golden joinery’ (the art of repairing broken pottery using gold), metaphorically meaning to render our flaws and fault-lines beautiful and strong.
- Apramāda (अप्रमाद) (Sanskrit; appamada in Pali): moral watchfulness, awareness of the ethical implications of one’s actions.
- Kekau (Indonesian, n.): regaining consciousness and returning to reality after a nightmare.
- Aufheben (German, v.): sublimation; to raise up, to remove/destroy, yet also paradoxically to preserve/keep.
- Kaizen (改善) (Japanese, n.): gradual, incremental (and often continuous) improvement.
- Kenshō (見性) (Japanese): temporary ‘glimpse’ of awakening and enlightenment.
Newly coined English words
I’ve separated these from the main list for further research. Some, like sonder, I have heard before, but there are many I hadn’t.
- Ambedo (English, new coinage, n.): a melancholic trance involving total absorption in vivid sensory details.
- Chrysalism (English, new coinage, n.): the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.
- Degrassé (English, new coinage, adj.): entranced and unsettled by the vastness of the universe.
- Grok (English, uncommon): to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed
- Kenopsia (English, new coinage, n.): the strange eerieness of empty or abandoned places.
- Klexos (English, new coinage, n.): the art of dwelling on the past.
- Lutalica (English, new coinage, n.): the part of your identity that doesn’t fit into categories.
- Nodus tollens (English, new coinage, n.): when your life doesn’t make sense or fit into a neat story.
- Opia (English, new coinage, n.): the ambiguous intensity of eye-contact.
- Semaphorism (English, new coinage, n.): an enigmatic, conversational hint that you have something personal to say on a subject.
- Socha (English, new coinage, n.): the hidden vulnerability of others.
- Sonder (English, new coinage, n.): the realization that everyone has a life as vivid and complex as your own).
I wonder what a list of negative words (like schadenfreude) would look like? I’d like to think there would be fewer than 216 words, but somehow I doubt it…
- Tim Lomas, PhD: Positive Lexicography
- Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being
- Untranslatable words — fourteen detailed illustrations by artist Marija Tiurina that convey moments and ideas which no single English word can describe.
- A linguistic family tree — beautiful illustration of a Nordic linguistic tree.
- “Esquivalience” — a fictitious entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary designed and included to protect copyright of the publication.