7 foreign words you need to know
While Caroline James has already challenged the belief that there’s anything like an untranslatable word, we nonetheless felt inspired to explore the lexicon of foreign languages in search of interesting words that don’t have an exact equivalent in English. Such an endeavour can often yield amusing results, but also give insight into the peculiarities of other cultures. Here we take a closer look at the complex meanings of eight foreign words and their origins.
The Dutch gezellig is one such term whose meaning cannot be easily conveyed with a single English word. You might use it when you’re in the pub with friends or having breakfast with your family; even a place like a café or a living room can be called gezellig. So, what does it mean? The word derives from gezel meaning ‘companion’ or ‘friend’ and, depending on the context, can be translated as close, intimate, cosy, sociable, homey, or convivial. It might also simply refer to a nice atmosphere or a general sense of togetherness.
A look into the Spanish dictionary reveals that it is not only the Dutch who can be gezellig. In Spanish, sobremesa is the time spent talking after a meal, an after-lunch or after-dinner conversation. The word is formed from two parts, the preposition sobre ‘over’ and the noun mesa ‘table’, and actually means ‘over the table’.
Given the reputation of the Scandinavian winter, it is perhaps no surprise that certain words from the Norwegian vocabulary seem to reflect the excitement Northerners surely must feel once the summer months roll on. Utepils is such a word. Literally translating as ‘outdoors lager’ (from ute ‘out, outside, outdoors’ and pils ‘lager’), the term is commonly used for the first beer you drink outside on a warm and sunny day, or generally for a beer you have sitting outdoors.
If you drink too many utepils, though, you might end up as a Schnapsleiche. This German compound combines the two nouns Schnaps and Leiche (translation: ‘schnapps corpse’) and refers to a person who has passed out from drinking too much. Schnaps is the word for any kind of strong alcohol that you drink in one quick sip from a small glass (Schnapsglas). The word comes from Low German Schnap(p)s, itself related to the verb schnappen, and originally meant ‘a mouthful, a quick sip’. Variations such as Alkoholleiche (‘alcohol corpse’) and Bierleiche (‘beer corpse’) also exist.
Moving on to more serious matters, the elusive Portuguese saudade is often cited as a famously ‘untranslatable’ word. It describes a feeling of missing someone or something, similar but not equal to nostalgia. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines saudade as ‘longing, melancholy, nostalgia, as a supposed characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament’. It is especially used with reference to songs or poetry.
Russian provides more wistfulness with the word тоска (toska). Similar to the Portuguese saudade, it is often used to describe the Russian condition and has many possible translations in English: melancholy, anguish, boredom, ennui, yearning, nostalgia. In everyday life, however, you might come across a different use of the word – in the phrase тоска по родине (toska po rodine), meaning ‘homesickness’.
The noun first appears in French as an isolated attestation in an account of the manners and customs of German courtiers from 1585, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that flâneur developed its complex set of meanings. From at least 1806, the term has been in colloquial use with derogatory undertones. In 1808, flâneur appears in a dictionary of ‘low language’ with the definition ‘a very lazy person, a slacker, a man of excruciating idleness, who doesn’t know where to parade his burden and his ennui’. Its current meaning of ‘a man who saunters around observing society’ was influenced by French writer Charles Baudelaire who, in his 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life, provides a detailed portrait of the flâneur as a modern spectator of urban life.