If you are a lover of words, you are a “logophile.” Not a very pretty word, I know. Still, it’s nice to know we have a word for that. Later today, if you are in a conversation with someone and you want to tell them what the word for a lover of words is, but you can’t quite remember it, there’s a actually a word for that too. You’ve just experienced lethologica.
The English language is a beautiful concoction of grammar and vocabulary from around the world. It’s frustrating, ever evolving and magically mellifluous. But though our grab bag of a lexicon incorporates many foreign elements, there are still words out there on the outskirts of translatable. I have collected a few of my favorite exotic words to share with you below. These are words we don’t have in English and yet, surprisingly, describe things we do, feel and experience every day.
1) L’appel du vide (French)
Perhaps it’s some primitive holdover from our monkey ancestors. Perhaps it’s your inner nihilistic looking for one last thrill. Whatever the reason, this phrase describes a feeling familiar to anyone who has climbed to the top of a mountain, looked over a bridge or stood on the edge of a balcony. It translates to “the call of the void.” It is the siren song that faintly compels you to jump.
2) Backpfeifengesicht (German)
Some words in this list convey nuanced feelings. Some words describe actions or beauty we English speakers simply lack the vocabulary to do justice. “Backpfeifengesicht,” however, is perfectly comprehensible (even though it does sound like someone trying to eat their own sneeze). The word translates to “a punchable face.” It will inevitably come to describe your [politician/celebrity/relative] of choice.
3) Boketto (Japanese)
When I discovered the Japanese have a word for this, I felt a lot better about myself. “Boketto” is the act of staring at nothing without thinking of anything. It’s not daydreaming, it’s just an empty, meaningless gazing. If you work in a cubicle, you might refer to this as “Peter Gibbons Syndrome.”
4) Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese)
The first word on our list that can’t be fully translated because it carries emotion behind it we don’t tend to pack into English. By itself it refers to running your fingers through someone’s hair. What sits behind the word is a wealth of warmth and tenderness. Ever been driving for a while and your girlfriend reaches out and gently strokes the place where your hair meets your neck, without saying anything, and it says everything? That’s cafuné.
5) Culaccino (Italian)
This word refers to something very simple but I’ve included it just because I love the way it sounds. The fact that it’s a pretty word to describe something ordinary and everyday makes it a little romantic. Very Italian. “Culaccino” is the mark left on a table by a cold drink. (You can prevent them by using coasters, but now that you know what it’s called you can conveniently forget to use one. “So sorry,” you say to your host, “I’ve left a culaccino on your coffee table.”)
If my Italian’s right it may also mean “little butt,” which makes this even better.
6) Dépaysement (French)
This word comes to us from the expatriate’s adopted country of choice, France. It is a melancholy word that refers to the feeling of not being in your home country. If you’ve ever gone out of town for an extended period of time and gazed at your bag of clothes and the unfamiliar faces on the sidewalk, you know this one in your bones. Edward Snowden probably wears this word like an overcoat.
7) l’esprit de l’escalier (French)
This is another word we don’t have in English that’s really a phrase we don’t have in English, but it describes something so universally frustrating we have to include it. Literally translated, it means “the spirit of the staircase.” Let’s say you meet a beautiful, witty and loquacious stranger at a party but, for whatever reason, it’s not until you’re walking downstairs to get a taxi that you think of the perfect thing you could have said to score their attention. Or more commonly, your nemesis, mother, father, brother, lover, boss or wayward ignoramus says something utterly terrible to you – but it’s not until you’ve left their presence that you realize the perfect retort you could have made, the ultimate comeback, a debilitating zinger that would have put them in their place. L’esprit de l’escalier always refers to that witty realization long after it can do you any good.
8) Forelsket (Norwegian)
This is not love. This is not passion or lust or infatuation. This is a kind of bliss. This is a kind of effervescent joy. This is the unbearable lightness of being that accompanies falling in love.
9) Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
They say eskimos have 100 words for snow. If they’re all as good as this one that might be my next article. Have you ever been so anxious for someone to arrive at your house that you keep checking the windows, going outside, looking to see if they’re there? In today’s world I think “iktsuarpok” refers more aptly to obsessively checking one’s cellphone to see if you’ve received a text from that certain someone.
10) Inshallah (Arabic)
This is a beautiful word from a language not widely recognized for its melodiousness. Literally it means “if Allah wills,” though its real meaning varies depending on the speaker’s tone and the situation. You can picture a farmer looking out over a drought-stricken farm and saying, “It will rain tonight, Inshallah.” But it also has a more casual meaning, such as when your friends invite you to the arcade but you might have a paper to write that night. You say, “I’ll see you tonight, inshallah.” If you’ve ever made plans with someone from Southern California, you can amend “inshallah” to the end of any schedule.
UPDATE: Originally I wrote that “inshallah” is technically reserved for those of the Islamic faith. However, “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God. And as that word is common to all languages, “inshallah” is open to all faiths. Thanks to Jad Asmar for the clarification!
11) Jayus (Indonesian)
Do you have a friend or spouse who just can’t tell a joke to save their life? But they try? They really try. And by the end of the joke, if you’ve been able to keep up with them starting over, forgetting the names or how many ducks were involved, the punchline wasn’t even worth it. But then something happens. You laugh. It’s not a courtesy laugh; you’re not doing it to make them feel better. The telling itself is so ridiculous, the joke so atrocious, that the entire ordeal is hilarious. A “jayus” is that joke.
12) Katzenjammer (German)
By far my favorite word for a hangover. I debated throwing this one in the list just because English has an equivalent, more or less, but I give it a pass because it’s only colloquially defined as a hangover. The word literally means “cat’s wail” and it can mean any sort of painful confusion or depression.
13) Komorebi (Japanese)
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of walking through a thick forest on a sunny day, you’ve seen komorebi. When the sunlight filters down through the canopy as beams of light, it makes the shadows of the leaves dance on the ground. “Komorebi” refers to the curtains of light and the train of their shadows (but not to the light that shimmers in the treetops above).
14) Kummerspeck (German)
Some people eat their feelings. You get hurt? You eat. You break your heart? You eat. You’re a millennial with a B.A. and you can’t even get a job at Burger King? You eat. Eventually all of that grief stretches your waistline. “Kummerspeck” refers to the weight gained from this overeating. It literally means “grief bacon.”
15) Madrugada (Spanish)
One of the most sensible words on this list, just because it describes a time period that really begs better description. This is that odd twilight time after midnight but before the traditional morning, the hazy space between 1 AM and 4 AM.
16) Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego)
One of the many words on this list I’d like to find a proper pronunciation for. It describes the significant look that’s shared by two people when they are attracted to each other and want the other to make the first move. This word may or may not sum up your entire middle school dating experience.
17) Mångata (Swedish)
If you’re near the water late at night, you will see a mångata when the sky is clear. This is the path of light that leads up to and is reflected by the moon.
Hungry for more? Check out 15 More Words We Don’t Have in English (and 1 We Do)!
For more articles by Pierce Nahigyan, check out his Article Archive