For the Logophiles

December 12, 2013 10:00 am

English is a curious language with many strange rules that don’t always apply, many odd words and a plethora of words borrowed and looted from other languages. I love words. I love the sound and feel of them. I love finding out where words came from and how they all came together to form the language that we have today. English is one of the fastest changing and expanding languages in the world and is a top contender for the language with the most words. This is probably why we have such a gargantuan literary history in the English-speaking world – fresh words mean fresh ideas.

But considering how huge our vocabulary is, we don’t have words for everything. I was having a browse around the internet today, trying to pick up some useful German phrases for when I go on my Christmas trip, when I fell across a site of words that cannot be directly translated into English. So being the logophile that I am, I delved deeper and found hundreds of words from all different languages (including some from old English that have fallen out of use) that can’t be translated into English as one word, but rather have to be described. So I decided to put together a list of my favourites, as listed below…

  • ‘Kummerspeck’ – German, this is a word meaning the extra weight gained after comfort eating. It literally means sorrow bacon. Yum.
  • ‘Uhtceare’ – this is from Old English (pronounced oot-key-ar-a). It is a word meaning that hour before dawn when you can’t sleep because you’re worrying. In those days, they probably lay awake worrying about small pox and invasion. Today we worry about whether we’ve turned the iron off.
  • ‘Iktsuarpok’ – from the Inuit language, this word means you keep on going to look out to check if anyone is coming. Probably when you’re waiting for your boyfriend who is always late, or for that parcel that never comes (bloody Royal Mail).
  • ‘Mamihlapinatapai’ – well that’s a mouthful! From the Yhagan language which now has only one native speaker left. It means thewords shared and silent eye contact between two people who both want to initiate something (a kiss? a confession of love?) but are both too shy or hold back. How romantic!
  • ‘Tartle’ – this one is used in Scotland nowadays apparently, and is the awkward moment when you introduce two people and forget one of their names.
  • ‘Duende’ – Spanish, this word is used for that time when you are overcome with awe at a piece of art, though originally it meant to have the overpowering feeling of awe in nature.
  • ‘Jayus’ – an Indonesian word that means an extremely unfunny joke. So unfunny that you just have to laugh at how awful it is.
  • ‘Tingo’ – this one made me laugh! This is from the language used on Easter Island and is a word used to mean ‘to borrow objects one by one from a neighbour’s house until there’s nothing left’. I think that’s called stealing…?
  • ‘Gigil’ – from Filipino, this means the urge to squeeze something unbearably cute. This brings to mind old aunts pinching cheeks, Agnes and her unicorn in Despicable Me and Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
  • ‘L’esprit de l’escalier’ – evidently French, not technically a word, but a phrase, but still. It is the perfect term for that time you think of a comeback too late. You’ve had an argument; you didn’t get the last word. You’re on the bus home when the perfect comeback pops into your head. Oh l’esprit de l’escalier!

I could go on forever finding untranslatable words, but I can’t realistically. So here’s a good one that I really enjoy to end it all off… ‘Backpfeifengesicht’ – guess which language? German of course! This is a great word that brings me much joy. It describes a person who just has a punchable face.

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