When you start studying a new language, one of the first things you’ll discover is that certain words and phrases in your new language have no English equivalent.
This can be really frustrating. How are you supposed to learn a language when you can’t think of a simple English translation? That said, this is one of my favourite aspects of language learning! Once you’re familiar with a language and its cultural roots, you’ll realize that many of these phrases are perfect for expressing concepts that you can’t say in English (without awkward rephrasing).
To demonstrate this, here are 41 words and phrases from other languages with no English equivalent. Check these out…
5 Terms that just make sense to have
1. Anteayer (Spanish)
The day before yesterday – Once you hear this word, you can’t help but realize that you’ve been missing it your whole life.
2. Ti voglio bene (Italian)
or Te quiero (Spanish)
or Ich hab’ dich lieb (German)
In English, you jump straight from liking someone to loving them. But there’s a much bigger spectrum of human emotions than that, and I think many people overuse “I love you” because of it.
In other languages, there’s a midway point. These are usually translated as “I love you” in English, but each of these languages have an even deeper and definitely romantic “I love you” that goes a level above these.
This middle point is definitely love, but it’s more that you hope the person is safe and care for them. In English, you have to be more careful. Do you love the person, or do you love-love them, or perhaps you only really like like them, which is more than just liking them. So confusing!
3. Estadounidense (Spanish)
A person or thing of the United States of America. – “American” kind of works, but there’s a whole North America, Central America and South America too. Aren’t they “American”? Some of us foreigners may continue to call you all Yankees until we fix this. Luckily, this isn’t an issue in Spanish!
4. Gigil (Tagalog)
Cuteness overload – You know the feeling when you see the most adorable baby, the cutest kitten or the cuddliest dog and you just want to squeeze it, and let out a huge “awwwww!” That feeling of cuteness-overload has a word in Tagalog. And it’s a cute word to boot!
5. Ser vs Estar (Spanish)
To be vs. to be – The two Spanish words for “to be” is worthy of groans from many a beginner language learner, but it also helps you express subtle differences in being. Check out this book I once saw in Spain:
Translating this literally, you get “You aren’t fat, you’re fat”. Or more cumbersomely, “Being fat isn’t a part of your permanent existence that defines you, you are only fat temporarily”. In Spanish you can express that you are something only temporarily, and it’s not a part of your permanent being.
8 Terms With Bizarre Literal Translations
These expressions can be a lot of fun and, even better, tend to be really easy to remember since they are so strange and humorous. Even if we don’t start up a blog quake with this article, you’re sure to get a laugh or two.
1. L’esprit de l’escalier (French)
Literally staircase wit — When you think of the perfect retort too late. I love this one. You know that feeling you have a few minutes after you leave a conversation, and you think to yourself, That’s what I should have said! The French have a phrase for that.
To me, this brings up the image of leaving someone’s apartment in Paris and going down the stairs (since there aren’t many lifts in la ville lumière), and realizing that you had the perfect thing to say to their snide final comment. Technically you could walk back up to them and say it, but that would be weird.
2. Bloggbävning (Swedish)
Literally blog quake — When a blog topic goes viral and is picked up by the mainstream media.
3. 加油 / Jiāyóu (Chinese)
Literally add oil — To push forward with more energy and effort. This is often said at sporting events or to encourage someone undertaking a challenge. This is also how to wish “good luck” in Chinese.
4. 吃苦 / Chīkǔ (Chinese)
Literally eat bitter — To endure extreme hardship. For me this word evokes a strong mental image.
5. Hygge (Danish)
Literally well being — To create a warm atmosphere and enjoy the good things in life with good people.
6. Flipperförälder (Swedish)
Literally pinball parent — A parent who lets their children have lots of freedom. I certainly would have loved a pinball machine when I was a boy!
7. Cwtch (Welsh)
Literally safe space — To give someone a hug, but not out of affection/love, but to let them know that they are safe.
8. Glas wen (Welsh)
Literally blue smile — An insincere smile. We say “crocodile tears” in English – why don’t we have a crocodile smile?
15 Actions We Wish Were Easier to Describe in English
Many cultures have specific, culturally nuanced actions that you don’t often find in English.
You might save some money with a dar un toque, or who hasn’t felt the desire to deppenfahrerbeaugung while you’re in the car?
Check out some of these action words and phrases that would be great to have in English.
1. Cambiar el chip (Spanish)
Literally change the chip — That Eureka moment, when it feels like a switch has been flicked in your brain, and its internal processor (chip) gives you a whole new way of thinking.
2. 撒娇 (Sājiāo) (Chinese)
To throw a fit and to act childish to show how much you love someone. Kind of romantic… I guess?
3. Politikerleden (Danish)
Having disgust for politicians.
4. Bagstiv (Danish)
Waking up in the morning still drunk from the night before.
5. Deppenfahrerbeaugung (German)
Literally moron driver eyeballing — when you want to turn around and glare at a bad driver you’ve just overtaken.
7. Baggerspion (German)
Literally digger truck spy hole — The desire to peek into boarded-up building sites.
8. Mencolek (Indonesian)
When you tap someone on the opposite shoulder from behind to trick them. I do this to Lauren often, to watch her spin around and finally find me back where she started. I was pretty sure that I invented this ingenious and hilarious ploy, but never quite knew what to call it until now.
9. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
When you keep checking outside to see if someone is coming.
10. 頑張ります /ganbarimasu (Japanese)
To put forth your best effort.
11. переподвыподверт (Russian)
To do something in a complex way that makes no sense
6. Aktivansteher (German)
Literally energetic queuer — An expert at the art of joining the best queues. I always seem to join the wrong line at the supermarket with the old lady counting pennies. I wish I had this superpower!
12. Dar un toque (Spanish) or Fare uno squillo (Italian)
To call a mobile phone and let it ring once so that the other person will call back, saving the first caller money. Can also be used for subtle communications like to simply let the other person know you are thinking of them, or that you are running late but will be there soon. No actual communication other than the missed call is provided, but the context is pretty clear what you mean.
13. Nosh (Yiddish)
To nibble at a light snack.
14. Plotz (Yiddish)
To explode in anger.
15. Béaláiste (Irish)
A toast (drink) used to seal a deal.
13 Amazing Ways Other Languages Describe People and Relationships
The purpose of language is to communicate with people, so it’s no surprise that most languages have unique ways to describe people and their relationships. Even a smlimazl might catch a break, or a белоручка might end up getting a promotion.
Here are 13 words and expressions that give us a glimpse into how different cultures view people and relationships.
1. Saudades (Portuguese)
A deep and emotional yearning, used when someone misses something or someone. A classic word that has to make every list like this! Pretty much any Brazilian I’ve met outside of Brazil feels saudades for their home. Unlike simply missing it or feeling homesick, it’s like a part of you is missing if you can’t be there or with that person.
2. 缘分 / Yuánfèn (Chinese)
Fate or serendipity that brings people together (often used for romantic coincidences).
3. 夫妻相 / Fūqīxiàng (Chinese)
Literally Husband Wife Look — A couple who have similar physical appearances and consequently are likely to get along and be a good match.
4. 热闹 / Rènào (Chinese)
Literally Hot Noisy — A lively environment with lots of people (used to express feelings of camaraderie and closeness with others).
5. Hils (Danish)
Expressing concern or caring for someone who is being talked about. (See also: 〜によろしくお願いします in Japanese)
6. Sitzpinkler (German)
Literally A man who sits to pee — Or in other words, a wimp. A weird cultural aside here, I have been in many German homes where signs in the bathroom have instructed men to sit while peeing. That’s certainly a new spin on gender equality!
7. Okradlakpok (Inuit)
To talk excessively.
8. 〜によろしくお願いします / ~ ni yoroshiku onegaishimasu (Japanese)
Asking to pass on an expression of concern or caring for another person. (See also: Hils in Danish)
9. мерзлячка (Russian) and Friolento/Friolero (Spanish)
People who don’t tolerate or are very sensitive to the cold. Lauren searched the world and finally found a word that describes how averse she is to cold environments.
10. почемучка (Russian)
A child who asks lots of questions.
11. белоручка (Russian)
A person who avoids dirty work.
12. luftmensch (Yiddish)
A dreamer; someone with no business savvy.
13. shlimazl (Yiddish)
A person with constant bad luck.
What Other Words Does English Need?
We had lots of fun putting together this list of words and phrases! But I’m sure we’ve missed some great ones.
Do you know of any good ones? Chime in with your suggestions in the comments and share them with the rest of the Fi3M family!