Sometimes, it may seem are no words for what we think or feel. What you may not know is that a foreign language may have a near-perfect term for it. The following 20 words, terms, and phrases are useful for self-expression, even though they have no definitive English translation.
1. Yurodivy (Russian)
Literally meaning, “God’s fool,” the connotation of this word is varied and complex. The yurodiviy is a term found in literature from before Dostoevsky through the Soviet Era and beyond. It refers to someone who is often resistant to God’s will. The yurodivy is seen more as a misunderstood victim or puppet of the Creator, even though that person is enacting God’s will.
2. Ya La Suo (Mandarin Chinese)
No phrase better fits the criteria for this list, since this one is not meant to be translated. Ya la suo is perhaps meant to mimic a cooing or sighing sound. It is used when one witnesses a beauty that defies words. Ya la suo figures heavily in singer Soinam Wnagmo’s theme for the Chinese drama series “The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.”
3. Wabi-Sabi (Japanese)
An ancient concept from Buddhism, wabi-sabi is about finding beauty in the imperfections and impermanence of life. It is about embracing life, no matter how it presents itself. In the Zen school of Buddhism, wab-sabi is one of the primary routes to happiness.
4. Samadhi (Sanskrit)
Probably the most ancient words in our list, it appears in Hindu yoga and Buddhist texts. Samadhi represents the deepest possible state of concentration. To yoga practitioners, it represents union with the divine. To the Buddhist, it is the final step before Enlightenment.
5. Mokusatsu (Japanese)
This word, which literally means “to kill with silence,” bears the weight of history. In 1945, when the United States threatened Japan with the first nuclear bombs, this single word was their reply. The best American translators could figure was it meant either “we consider it” or “we ignore it.” This fascinating declassified NSA document tells the full story.
6. Waldeinsamkeit (German)
Sometimes, there is great joy and comfort in solitude. Waldeinsamkeit means just that. It is the feeling of warmth and introspection you feel, specifically while walking alone in the woods. It is the polar opposite of verfremdungseffekt, which is a feeling of alienation from empathy and other people when contemplating the more sweeping aspects of society.
7. Baljagug (Korean)
The Korean language (called Hangul when written) is famous for its onomatopoeic words – that is, words that describe a sound by imitating that sound. While it may sound different to foreign ears, to the Koreans, baljagug is the sound snow makes as it is crushed underfoot. It is a deeply satisfying sound in any language.
8. Kapsoura (modern Greek)
This is the “crazy in love” phase of being in love. It is that early stage of a romance where you are obsessive about the other person. You feel deeply romantic, have a goofy grin on your face, and are constantly listening to Alicia Keys songs. Kapsoura is the best of the natural highs in life. Don’t be surprised if your friends shy away when you mention it, though.
9. Philotimo (Modern Greek)
While this word basically means “a love for honor” (in both Ancient and Modern Greek), the connotations run far deeper than this seemingly straightforward word. To the Greeks, honor can be a catch-all phrase for every virtue a person can have. In other words, philotimo is the inspiration to be one’s best self, and the best among others, in the most noble of ways.
10. Lintukoto (Finnish)
This term is a close cousin of the German waldeinsamkeit. Literally meaning “home of birds,” Lintukoto is a place of safety, opulence, and coziness in which a person feels invulnerable. Finland itself is often considered a Lintukoto. This term also plays into the axiom “ignorance is bliss,” since the people who experience it ignores outside concerns.
11. Gyal-tso (Tibetan)
It literally translates to “ocean” or, more precisely, “lake of victory.” This term is also a name bestowed upon Tibet’s Dalai Lamas (and this title, in fact, means “master whose wisdom is ocean-deep”). Gyal-tso is an expression of the depth of one’s personality and wisdom.
12. L’esprit d’escalier (French)
This term, which roughly translates to “staircase intellect,” is something the majority of us can identify with. It is all about coming up with the perfect verbal comeback in an argument… long after said the argument has ended. Perhaps the closest English language equivalent is “Monday morning quarterback.”
13. Te Quiero (Spanish)
This is the ultimate “friend zone” expression. It basically means “I love you as a friend.” Te quiero is a way of expressing affection without the question of romantic attachment.
14. Tarbih (Arabic)
This term is all about social capital. It is about giving insincere aid or favors with the expectation that the recipient will owe you later. This term also refers to the act when it is done accidentally.
15. Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi)
This First American word means “nature or life out of balance.” It describes a state of being that is not only self-destructive, but dangerous to the world. It is also the title of a 1982 film.
16. Mencomot (Indonesian)
This is basic kleptomania. This term is meant to describe your basic teenage (or older) shoplifter, who steals useless or cheap things for the fun of it. Obviously, it’s a pejorative term.
17. Contientizao (Portugese)
This is perhaps the most difficult word on our list to translate. Invented by revolutionary and literacy scholar Paulo Freire, it means becoming conscientious, caring, and empathetic, especially toward the oppressed.
18. Luftmensch (Yiddish)
According to the classic book The Joys of Yiddish, this term means “one who lives on air.” This is your “head in the clouds” sort of fellow – one who is proficient in many things, but rarely successful in any of them.
19. Ubuntu (Xhosa)
Long before it was the name for an operating system, this Xhosa and Zulu-shared word is about how one conducts one’s life. While it literally means “humanity,” it is more of an idea. Ubuntu is about the compassion, interconnectedness, and benevolence one feels as a truly good citizen of the world.
20. Gigil (Filipino)
This word could best be described in English as “cute aggression.” It is the irresistible urge to cuddle, hug, or squeeze the stuffing out of someone really cute.
Armed with these words, you will no doubt amaze (or potentially annoy) your friend. In either case, you will be better able to express yourself in those moments when words fail you.