Words I wish I had in English

By Legal Eagle

On Facebook, I came across this site: 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words. Ever wished you had a word for that hesitation while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name? The Scots have a word for that. Or a word for “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start”? The Tierra del Fuegan indigenous people have a word for that look.

But I think there’s a few more common expressions that English is really wanting.

The first one is something to say at the beginning of a meal to express hope that the other person enjoys the food, or alternatively, to express thanks for the meal. The only languages I know are Japanese and French, which have something to say for this: itadakimasu (to express gratitude for the meal) or bon appétit (to express hope that the other person enjoys the meal). There is absolutely nothing you can say in English. Absolutely nothing! I have a rather rude theory about why this is, and it has to do with English stodge food. Now, I think English food has improved immeasurably over the years (in part because of European and other influences). And there are some English foods that I like: eg, roast dinners, Yorkshire pudding, chip butties, strawberries and cream. But, well…how can I put this politely? The English are not really known for their culinary prowess. I have eaten some of the worst food I’ve ever tasted in England. (Don’t get me started on school dinners). It’s like the people who cooked it took no pride in it at all, and didn’t really care about it, or about how it tasted. Hence, I think the lack of English words to express pride in the meal or gratitude for the meal arises from the historical English tendency to lack pride in food generally.

The second is something to express sadness or regret. In Japanese, you can say zannen desu né or in French you can say quelle dommage! But the English translations “What a pity” or “It’s a pity, isn’t it?” just don’t seem to me to have the same level of pathos. It sounds trite and empty.

Does anyone else think English needs certain words? If so, which words?


  1. Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I think the closest English equivalent for food is “I’m an annoying pratt called Jamie, you will cook and eat what I say you should or I’ll call you a fat pig and guilt-trip you that you’re killing your kids”.

    So yeah, not *really* translatable.

  2. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Some that I like:

    ‘Broughtupcy’ — from Bajan (Barbados) dialect; it means someone who not only was raised properly by their parents, but actually lives their life displaying good manners, respect for other people’s privacy and personal integrity. A terrible insult? Tell a Bajan that he ‘doesn’t have any broughtupcy’.

    ‘Tanga’ — a suffix used in Pacific Islander languages to indicate the intrinsic qualities of a thing. ‘Maoritanga’ will often be translated as ‘Maoriness’, but that’s not really what it means.

    ‘Kamidana’ — the very beautiful household shrines present in Japanese homes containing images of ancestors, household spirits and (in olden times) a picture/statue of the Emperor. Latin has an exact translation: lararia. English has to make do with ‘godshelf’, which just sounds awful, no matter how good the rest of your translation may be.

    ‘Stushie’ — Scots word for a growing public disagreement short of actual physical violence.

    That’ll do for now; I’ll think of others in due course.

  3. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    On “bon appetit”-like phrases: the russian “r*z*b* ??? dushu” (f*** your|their soul) is a curse that makes our “f*** you” and “damn them, damn them all to hell” look mild. In English, the objects would only be those who’d done something really nasty and personal, like a vicious ex spouse, or someone who’d done permanent serious injury to your kin. Who but the Russians could think up such a phrase?

    I note from the last para of http://catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/comparatives.html that apparenly yiddish has more words for obnoxious people than most other languages.

    Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    That is utterly beautiful.

  5. Posted October 20, 2010 at 2:53 am | Permalink

    The Maori word Mana – I know what it means and can use it in context but I can’t translate it into one word in English.

    Simpatico/simpatica – the Spanish word which is often translated as nice in describing someone but really means more than that – all the attributes you’d want in a good friend.

  6. TerjeP
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    LE – I’d argue that “bon appétit” is part of English. Along with all the other foreign imported words that run amok within our language.

  7. conrad
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    “But the English translations “What a pity” or “It’s a pity, isn’t it?” just don’t seem to me to have the same level of pathos.”

    I think you’ll find that over time, many words high in emotional content tend to lose it (not all, for reasons which I’m not clear about). I would think that would happen to quelle dommage, as I have heard it said with a pretty flat intonation occasionally (i.e., just something people say when something not terribly bad happens). I think the best example of this is how expletives have changed from the start of this century to now — The literal meaning of some is horrible, but they have no real effect on people anymore.

  8. Posted October 20, 2010 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    What you forget Katy is that English has along history of appropriating words from other languages and making them a part of the English lexicon. Thus it is entirely proper to say “bon appétit” at the beginning of a meal. In essence if English odes not have the perfect word for something it will soon fin them 🙂

  9. Posted October 20, 2010 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    Should read:
    Thus it is entirely proper to say “bon appétit” at the beginning of a meal. In essence if English does not have the perfect word for something it will soon find them.

  10. Peter Patton
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    How about “Enjoy”?

    And can any language top “silly as a wheel” for inexplicability?

  11. Posted October 20, 2010 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    English as linguistic bowerbird; it’s a good image. One can visualise a lovely glossy blue-black creature lighting on blue objects and going, ‘oooh, shiny!’

  12. TerjeP
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    The metaphor I have in my head is a pot of soup on the fire into which foreign spices are being added.

  13. TerjeP
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    By the way does “two, four, six, eight, dig in don’t wait” qualify?

  14. TerjeP
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    We say grace (not always but often) in my household even though both my wife and I are non believers. The kids often include God in their versions (little rebels) but when it’s my turn I usually stick to the classic “for what we are about to receive may we be truely thankful”.

  15. KiwiInOz
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Hmm. What words to use when looking for that je ne sais quoi?

    When told to pick his clothes off the floor, my son retorted that it was his floordrobe.

  16. BT
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I’m using “floordrobe” tonight just for the reaction from my wife! Stupendous!!

    And on the ‘stealing’ from other languages, other languages tend to do the same with English words – be in a non-Eng speaking environment and be amazed at single English words that pop out of conversations around you!

  17. Posted October 20, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I would very much agree that if English doesn’t have a word for something, it’s stolen borrowed from some other language in a jiffy.

    And of course that’s a two-way street. Don’t the French say le sandwich, le week-end and le bluejeans?

  18. Posted October 20, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    They do indeed, although I understand they tried to resist the Japlish term ‘walkman’ by coining ‘baladeur’ as a substitute, which I find hilarious.

  19. KiwiInOz
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Peter Patton @ 10 – my northern English mother-in-law uses ‘daft as a brush’.

  20. Patrick
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I think that very little is really translatable, as captured by Hegel’s (apocryphal) remark that he only started to understand himself when he read the French translation, or indeed by Geothe’s observation that you could only really think in Ancient Greek and German.

  21. Jacques Chester
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    It affects artificial languages too:

    As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he’s looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they’re missing some feature he’s used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn’t realize he’s looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.

  22. desipis
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Patrick, I know I stopped trying to think in English quite a while ago. It shows when I try to communicate with people and ungrammatical disjointed crap spews out.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *