Untranslatable WordsOr, ideas that take me more phonemes to express as opposed to someone who speaks, say, Nguni Bantu

Posted on 19 October 2015 by Vanessa DeMelo

Welcome to my first post for the Procrastination Compilation, which is intended to entertain you, the reader, and me, the sleepy clerk, as we all learn about things that have little or nothing to do with medicine. My first post is about untranslatable words- ideas condensed into a single word that has no single equivalent in the English language. As someone who learned English as my first language, and whose French language skills are fairly rudimentary, I tend to be functionally monolinguistic. That is until recently, with the happening of medical school. Have you ever felt as if trying to amass hundreds of new medical words into your vocabulary can be a bit like the sieve-and-the-sand metaphor that we remember all too well from Fahrenheit 451? Learning the language of medicine really is a voracious undertaking, but with repeated exposure our skill to use our calor, dolor, rubor, and tumor descriptors will come naturally (I sincerely hope).

In the meantime, here are fun new devices to express yourself more effectively; even for situations that you didn’t even realize needed it. Have ten of my pickings:

  1. Pisanzapra (Malay) – the time it takes to eat a banana
  2. Komorebi (Japanese) – the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees
  3. Hiraeth (Welsh) – a homesickness for somewhere you cannot return to, the nostalgia and the grief for the lost places of your past, places that never were
  4. Drachenfutter (German) – literally “dragon-fodder.” The gift a husband gives to his wife when he’s trying to make up for bad behaviour
  5. Karelu (Tulu) – the mark left on the skin by wearing something tight
  6. Jayus (Indonesian) – a joke so terrible and so unfunny that you can’t help but laugh
  7. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan) – a silent acknowledgement and understanding between two people, who are both wishing or thinking the same thing (and are both unwilling to initiate)
  8. Trepverter (Yiddish) – a witty riposte or comeback you think of only when it is too late to use. Literally, “staircase words”
  9. Resfeber (Swedish) – the restless beat of a traveller’s heart before the journey begins, a mixture of anxiety and anticipation
  10. Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu) – essentially meaning ‘I find my worth in you, and you find your worth in me.’ Can be very roughly translated as human kindness
  11. Poronkusema (Finnish) – the distance a reindeer can comfortable travel before taking a break
  12. Tretår (Swedish) – on its own, “tår” means a cup of coffee and “patår” is the refill of said coffee. A “tretår” is therefore a second refill, or a “threefill”
  13. Ya’aburnee (Arabic) – meaning “you bury me”, a beautifully morbid declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person, as it would be too difficult living without them

So I lied, and you ended up with a baker’s dozen worth of words. I couldn’t resist and I am not sorry in the slightest!

Credit goes to the book Lost in Translation, An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders (Ten Speed Press 2014). This little gem was a spontaneous purchase during exam season which I found via Twitter, of all places. Each word is accompanied by a whimsically wonderful illustration, and if you’re looking for an impulsive buy, I recommend it!

I also want to give a quick shout out to the Magoosh Vocabulary Builder App, which is a remarkably nerdy yet fun resource to quiz yourself and build that mental lexicon.

Happy October, and might you enjoy every last bit of pumpkin spice and seasonal feuillemort (having the colour of a faded, drying leaf, French).

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