Growing up, I loved listening to my mom, grandmother and aunt speak German at the dinner table. That was until I learned that they were using German to secretly talk about my sister and me, literally over our heads. Sitting patiently through these seemingly endless, incomprehensible conversations meant that we could sit through anything.
There’s a single German word that sums up that particular kind of patience — sitzfleisch. But what other super-specific, seemingly untranslatable words are out there? Join me for a dive into OZY’s archives and the minds of our editorial team to uncover the words you never knew you needed.
— Isabelle Lee, OZY Reporter
the warm fuzzies
1. Really Understanding a Friend
Do you have a friend that truly understands you? Almost like you’re their favorite book, well-worn with reams of handwritten notes in the margins? The Swahili word for having such a friend is nimekusoma. We should all be so lucky to have such a friend.
2. Strutting and Flirting
You know the feeling of wearing your Saturday night finery, walking down the street at sunset, fishing for a date? The Italians call that strùscio. It’s a gorgeous word for a glorious feeling. It comes from the Kingdom of Naples in the 1700s when nobles would celebrate Easter by visiting churches while dressed to the nines.
So there’s this guy you keep running into around the neighborhood. Could this be the start of a relationship determined by fate? The Chinese word for such a happenstance is yuanfen. But don’t rely on yuanfen alone to build your relationship. You have to seize the opportunity it presents and make the connection yourself.
4. Everyday Happiness
There is nothing better than that cozy feeling you get when snuggled with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate in your favorite spot on the couch. The feeling that image conjures up is known to Danes as hygge. The feeling of hygge is also present when you’ve pulled off an expertly designed dinner party with friends, and there’s a swelling of happiness fluttering in your chest. Living life in the pursuit of hygge seems like the way to go.
5. Spring Fever
Spring can be invigorating. You can feel yourself coming back to life just like burgeoning leaves and flowers. Sometimes, however, it makes you feel even lazier, even more like snuggling deep into your couch and hiding out for a while. The Germans call that feeling frühjahrsmüdigkeit. The cause? Your cells are waking up from a long winter’s nap, and your brain might not know what to do with all the energy.
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Almost nothing is worse than walking away from an awkward interaction or confrontation and suddenly thinking of the perfect comeback. The term for coming up with a retort you regretfully never got to use is l’esprit de l’escalier. It was inspired by a French philosopher’s personal experience of getting all the way to the bottom of the stairs before coming up with a good comeback and deciding that it just isn’t worth it to go back to deliver it.
Some languages have a word for the crappy joke that you just can’t help but laugh at. In Indonesia that word is jayus, which originates from a history of censoring art in the country, a move that made comedy on the archipelago more reliant on gestures and obvious punchlines in order to avoid punishment for any perceived anti-government sentiment.
3. Snitches Get Stitches
I wish I had known about the Russian phrase donoschiku pervyi knut when I was growing up and I’d ‘accidentally’ punch my sister a little too hard and beg her not to tell my mom. The saying literally translates to “the informer gets whipped first.”
When I was in kindergarten, I got in trouble with my mom for reading too much. The problem was that I got so involved in the book that I couldn’t hear anything going on around me. She used to accuse me of being addicted to books, something German speakers call lesesucht.
5. Anger, or Close to It
What’s the feeling when you are upset with a loved one, but not in a major way, perhaps not even wholeheartedly? It’s that delicate shade of annoyance, not as deep as resentment, and imbued with more intimacy than being plain miffed. You’re upset, not necessarily because it’s rational, but because you know you are allowed to be with someone so cherished. Among those who speak Bengali, including Bangladeshis and Indians in the eastern city of Kolkata, there is a word for it too — abhiman (pronounced “obhiman” and not to be confused with the Hindi word abhimaan, meaning pride).
Surprisingly, one of the best words to encapsulate overeating just because the food tastes so good — as you might do on Thanksgiving — comes from the country of Georgia. Shemomechama translates to “I accidentally ate the whole thing.” Georgians are masters of the feast; legend even has it that if you die before going to a Georgian feast, you’ve insulted God himself.
7. Buying Books and Not Reading Them
I have a friend who insists on buying stacks of books just to stockpile them and never read them. He’s a culprit of tsundoku, the Japanese word for hoarding books but failing to crack the covers. It’s a classic case of buying to look at, not to use.
Indians consider owls to be lazy, stupid animals, which is very different from the American concept of the wise, old owl. So, in English-speaking parts of the world, ullu ka patha would make a fantastic curse because it literally translates to “son of an owl,” which would confuse your target into mistaking your indignation for flattery. One Indian comedian even pranked conservative commentator Tomi Lahren into calling former President Donald Trump an “ullu.”
2. Marbhfháisc ort
If you’re looking to be mysterious and spooky with your verbal reprimands, rather than straight-up vulgar or rude, give the Irish saying marbhfháisc ort a spin. It translates as “a shroud on you” — a curse in the true sense of the word. Uttering this phrase will leave your target feeling unsettled and more than a little confused.
3. Tofu no kado ni atama wo butsukete shine
When you think of tofu, you probably imagine its soft texture or the yummy dishes it helps make. You probably aren’t thinking of it as a deadly weapon. The Japanese saying tofu no kado ni atama wo butsukete shine literally translates to “hit your head on a corner of tofu and die.” It’s used to ridicule an unreasonable person, or wish them ill. Ouch.
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Ranjish: Urdu is a language studded with gorgeous, near-musical words, but the word ranjish really delivers a sense of dissonance. Sure, if you wish to uncomplicate it, it could be translated as bitterness or even enmity. But the word — of Persian origin — is perhaps best reserved for more complex feelings of resentment or disconnect between two people — perhaps occupying the space where once there was love. (Sohini Das Gupta, Reporter)
Ghodar-dim: It never hurts to hope — unless those hopes are so far beyond the bounds of reality that you find yourself being ridiculed by your friends. In Bengali, the phrase used to describe crazy, unrealistic, false hopes is ghodar-dim, which literally means “horse’s egg.” (Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor)
Apapacho: Sometimes, the love you share with a person through a hug is just indescribable — well, for nonspeakers of a certain Romance language, that is. In Spanish, apapacho is when you dish out heaps of care and kindness, something more than a cuddle. It’s used to describe deep, meaningful hugs, like the ones we’ve all missed so much during the pandemic. (Josefina Salomon, Senior Writer)
Vergangenheitsbewältigung: It is not easy to reckon with your past. Germans call the act of coming to terms with their nation’s uncomfortable or traumatic past through public debate and discourse vergangenheitsbewältigung. It also encompasses the feeling of embarrassment or remorse for the nation’s complicated history after 1945. (Erik Nelson, Weekend Editor)
Cholera: Calling someone a deadly disease is a pretty epic curse in any language. In Poland, referring to someone as a cholera loosely translates to calling them a b*****d, or it can be a general insult that’s thrown around. It evolved from wishing that your adversary contracted cholera in the 19th century. It’s tossed about pretty casually and has become as innocuous as the exclamation you make when you stub your toe. (Zuzia Whelan, Copy Editor)
Ubuntu: A person’s a person through other people. Sound confusing? Ubuntu is the South African concept of humanity and compassion. It also encompasses the spirit of togetherness of all Africans working toward healing and reconciliation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu defined the concept as “I participate, I share.” (Kate Bartlett, Senior Editor)