Fun March 19, 2018

Meet the Untranslatables. 10 words that refuse to adapt!

Living Word
By Living Word

Every now and then, hip foreign words pop up in media and infiltrate the collective consciousness as cool new slang.


Meet ‘hygge’ [hue-guh] who wants you to become more ‘feel good’ and Danish.

In the last couple of years, Britain has been obsessed with all things Scandinavia including words such as the Danish ‘hygge’ (meaning cosiness, feelings of wellness and contentment) and the craze has been followed by a number of articles and books on how to become more Danish, both in terms of fashionable interior design as well as health and wellbeing. Ultimately, the concept of ‘hygge’ is about a better quality of life, captured in one simple word.

Meet ‘lagom’ from Sweden who wants you to take a balanced lifestyle approach. But don’t be caught slouching.

More recently, the Swedish ‘lagom’ (meaning just the right amount) has taken its place, hinting to a more balanced lifestyle with ‘not too little, not too much, just right’, like in the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Again with a wave of dedicated books and features, and even IKEA giving tips on the ‘lagom’ lifestyle. However, the word has different shades of meaning and, although often praised as a love of moderation, is by some considered ‘not trying hard enough’ – it can even be seen as an insult in some contexts.

The so called untranslatable words, such as ‘hygge’ and ‘lagom’, provide a glimpse into the languages and cultures and add to the subtleties of communication. When there is no direct translation, messages may be ‘lost in translation’ as it can be tricky to capture the essence and nuances, hence the sometimes long and vivid descriptions of what exactly that feeling, action or idea stands for.


Come and meet more of the Untranslatables who just refuse to adapt.*

Pålegg (Norwegian noun)
Anything and everything you can put on a slice of bread.

Vacilando (Spanish verb)
Travelling when the experience itself is more important than the destination.

Boketto (Japanese noun)
Gazing vacantly into the distance without really thinking about anything specific.

Kummerspeck (German noun)
Literally meaning ‘grief-bacon’, this word refers the excess weight we can gain from emotional overeating.

Hiraeth (Welsh noun)
A homesickness for somewhere you cannot return to, the nostalgia and the grief for the lost places of your past, places that never were.

Pisan Zapra (Malay noun)
The time needed to eat a banana.

Meraki (Greek adjective)
Pouring yourself wholeheartedly into something, such as working, and doing so with soul, creativity, and love.

Gezellig (Dutch adjective)
Describes much more than just cosiness – a positive warm emotion or feeling rather than just something physical – and connotes time spent with loved ones, togetherness.

Samar (Arabic noun)
Staying up late long after the sun has gone down and having an enjoyable time with friends.

Suadade (Portuguese noun)
A vague, constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, a nostalgic longing for someone or something loved and then lost.


Do you have a favourite untranslatable word? Let us know!

*Taken from Ella Frances Sanders’ book Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. ©2014 Ten Speed Press