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Positive, emotion-laden words you won’t find in the English language

Scholars have long debated the significance of these so-called “untranslatable” words — specifically, how much their nonexistence in English influences the thoughts and emotions of people in English-speaking cultures.

As the German word Schadenfreude (“pleasure at the misfortunes of others”) famously illustrates, other languages often have words whose emotional meaning cannot be comparably expressed in English with a single word.

Scholars have long debated the significance of these so-called “untranslatable” words — specifically, how much their nonexistence in English influences the thoughts and emotions of people in English-speaking cultures. But as Tim Lomas, a psychologist at the University of East London argues in a absorbing new paper, these types of words “exert great fascination, not only in specialized fields like linguistics or anthropology, but also in popular culture.”

“Part of the fascination,” he adds, “seems to derive from the notion that such words offer ‘windows’ into other cultures, and thus potentially into new ways of being in the world.”

In his paper, which appeared last month in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Lomas presents what he calls “the beginnings of a positive cross-cultural lexicography of ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being, culled from across the world’s languages.”

His initial “quasi-systematic search” uncovered 216 such terms, which he hopes will “help expand the emotional vocabulary of English speakers (and indeed speakers of all languages), and consequently enrich their experiences of well-being.”

I don’t know if the lexicon he’s started to compile will accomplish that ambitious goal, but it certainly makes for some interesting reading.

Lomas has organized the words into three main categories. Here are some examples from each. The definitions are either written or compiled by Lomas: 

Words related to feelings 

Sombremesa (Spanish): when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing

Desbundar (Portuguese): shedding one’s inhibitions in having fun

Schnapsidee (German): an ingenious plan one hatches while drunk

Gökotta (Swedish): waking up early with the purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing

Suaimhneas croi (Gaelic): a state of happiness encountered specifically after a task has been finished

Tarah (Arabic): a musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment

Ramé (Balinese): something at once chaotic and joyful

Iktsuarpok (Inuit): the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived

Vorfreude (German): the intense, joyful anticipation derived from imagining future pleasures, although this does depend on a strong likelihood of attainment

Saudade (Portuguese): a melancholic longing/nostalgia for a person, place or thing that is far away — either spatially or in time

Natsukashii (Japanese): a nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer

Words relating to relationships

Nakama (Japanese): friends whom one effectively considers family

Kanyininpa (Aboriginal Pintupi): an intimate and active relationship between a “holder” and that which is “held,” capturing the deep feeling of nurturance and protection a parent feels for a child

Gigil (Philippine Tagalog): the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished

Retrouvailles (French): the joy people feel after meeting loved ones again after a long time apart

Razljubit (Russian): the feeling a person has for someone they once loved

Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu): the culturally valued notion of being kind to others on account of one’s common humanity

Kreng-jai (Thai): the wish to not trouble someone by burdening them with a request that might cause them hassle

Fargin (Yiddish): to glow with pride and happiness at the success of others (often family members)

Gunnen (Dutch):  to allow someone to have a positive experience, especially if that means one won’t have it oneself

Hirgun (Hebrew): the act of saying nice things to another simply to make them feel good

Words relating to character

Sisu (Finnish): extraordinary determination in the face of adversity

Aõ jenna (Icelandic): the ability or willingness to persevere through tasks that are hard or even just boring

Kefi (Greek): a spirit of joy, passion, enthusiasm, high spirits, even frenzy

Jugaad (Hindi): the ability to “make do” or “get by,” particularly in difficult circumstances 

Desenrascanço (Portuguese): to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation

Sprezzatura (Italian): a certain nonchalance, wherein all art and effort are concealed beneath a “studied carelessness”

Kombinowac (Polish): working out an unusual solution to a complicated problem, and acquiring coveted skills or qualities in the process

Kào pu (Chinese): someone who is reliable, responsible and able to get things done without causing problems for others

Orenda (Wyandot Iroquoian): the power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces, such as fate 

Lomas has launched a website for his “positive lexicography project,” which he describes as “very much a work in progress.” He says he welcomes suggestions for additional words and for improvements on any definitions. At the website, you’ll also be able to download and read his recently published paper.

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