In They Have A Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases, Howard Rheingold describes many words from other languages that express things English can’t—at least not succinctly. Here are just a few of our favorites.
We often think of the perfect comeback long after the opportunity for that comeback has presented itself. Germans call that treppenwitz, a “clever remark that comes to mind when it is too late to utter it.” (The French have a word for this, too: esprit de l’escalier—literally, “the spirit of the staircase.”) According to Rheingold, this noun can also refer to historical events “that appear to be the result of a joke played by fate or history,” like, for example, the Battle of New Orleans, which took place two weeks after the War of 1812 officially ended thanks to slow communication.
This Indonesian word indicates “a phrase uttered in order to gain extra strength when carry heavy objects,” and is meant for a person who is lifting solo. What phrase do you use?
According to Rheingold, this is a Russian noun that describes “the feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but now does not.”
A Japanese noun that refers to “an awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words.”
This German adjective means "flustered to the point of incompetence." It's different from English words like jittery, Rheingold says, because "it conveys a temporary state of inexactitude and sloppiness that is elicited by another person's nagging."
Italians use this phrase—which literally translates to “reheated cabbage”—to describe an “attempt to revive an old relationship.”
This is a Swedish exclamation, a sympathetic word to be used when someone else is in pain. “Uffda combines ‘Ouch for you’ and ‘Oh, I’m sorry you hurt yourself,” writes Rheingold. It's pronounced OOF-dah.
Another great German word that refers to “a gloomy, romanticized world-weary sadness, experienced most often by privileged youth.” It translates literally to “world-grief.”
The next time you dream that you’re falling and wake up suddenly, use this Indonesian verb, which means “to wake up with a start.”
German has the best words—including this one, a noun that means “a so-called improvement that makes things worse.” Rheingold wants to bring this one back ASAP, and we agree with him!
This delightful verb, from the Scots language, means "to swallow, gulp, suck with a slobbering noise." Use it at family dinner to poke fun at your soup-slurping siblings.
If you’ve ever been talking to someone you've been introduced to before, but whose name you can't recall, and pause before introducing them to someone else—"Judy meet ... Bob!"—congratulations, you’ve tartled! Another delightful Scots verb that means “to hesitate in recognizing a person or thing.”