Every now and then we experience emotions that defy easy description. Sometimes whole episodes of our lives can fall into this linguistic limbo. For instance, after a long-delayed retrouvailles, some dear friends and I recently shared some lunch and followed it up with a delightful sobremesa. Unfortunately, the festivities continued long into the night, and I awoke the next day with a raging katzenjammer.
Below is a list of fifteen foreign words that describe feelings and situations English speakers will understand but lack the vocabulary to articulate. I’ve also included one practical English word that has perplexingly fallen out of use.
1. Meraki (Greek)
This word is the difference between the best of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the worst of James Patterson. True, James Patterson didn’t drink himself to death, but his made-to-order factory novels hold none of the hope, yearning and beauty of a single Gatsby. “Meraki” is doing something with soul, putting a piece of yourself into your work. Not just art, but anything made with passion or genuine desire.
Of course, Fitzgerald did end up broke and dead and married to a crazy person, while Patterson is a millionaire…
2. Mutterseelinallein (German)
The literal translation of this word is “mother-soul alone.” It describes a kind of loneliness that is so wretched, so all-consuming that it leaves you breathless, your chest constricted. You are untethered to anyone, like an astronaut drifting in space, isolated to the degree that it feels as if your mother’s soul has been ripped away from you.
3. Nunchi (Korean)
This is a talent that comes in handy during job interviews and meeting your new in-laws. When you pay close attention to what a speaker is saying and use their body language and tone to match your behavior accordingly, you are practicing nunchi. Nunchi is acting appropriately by gauging the actions of others. It is a skill honed to perfection by social climbers and entertainers. Otakus and awkward folks will lack this ability; they will be “nunchi eoptta,” or “absent of nunchi.”
4. Overmorrow (English)
What we have here is a practical English word that has sadly fallen out of use. It is considered antiquated, which is what we say about other wonderful words like “poplolly,” “slubberdegullion” and “bedswerver.” The word simply means the day after tomorrow. Can you think of a single reason we shouldn’t reinstate it?
5. Pena ajena (Spanish)
This phrase is essentially the opposite of “schadenfreude,” which means pleasure at another’s misfortune. (Schadenfreude is not included in this list because it has gradually been absorbed into the English language.) “Pena ajena” is when you yourself feel embarrassed when you see someone else suffer embarrassment. Put another way, if “schadenfreude” is how you feel when someone you hate messes up, “pena ajena” is how you feel when someone you like is humiliated.
6. POCHEMUCHKA (RUSSIAN)
What I was in grade school, according to most of my teachers. A “pochemuchka” is a person who asks many questions. Too many questions…
7. RETROUVAILLES (FRENCH)
This is the joy of reunion after a long time spent apart. Before 9/11 airport terminals were filled with retrouvailles.
8. SAUDADE (PORTUGUESE)
Similar to “toska” (see below) but a little more whimsical, a little more dreary. This is a persistent yearning for something you’ve lost. However, significantly, it can also be for something you never had, even for something that does not exist. It is a lonesome longing for the girl of your dreams, a castle in the sky or functional government-sponsored healthcare.
9. SOBREMESA (SPANISH)
A pleasant word for a pleasant activity we all experience: Having a conversation with friends after sharing a meal.
10. TARTLE (SCOTS)
One of my favorite words on this list. A “tartle” is the hesitation that is caused by forgetting the name of the person you’re in the middle of introducing.
11. TOSKA (RUSSIAN)
There are many lists of exotic foreign words available on the internet and almost all of them include this one. Sometimes translated as “nostalgia,” its meaning is much greater and much deeper, much emptier and yet resonant with something more. The following quote is from Vladimir Nabokov, a poet, prose stylist, lepidopterist and synesthete. If he can’t define it for us, we may have to give it up for lost. (Can one feel toska for “toska?”)
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
Despite the online ubiquity of this quote I have yet to ascertain its source. My best guess is Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory, but the search goes on.
12. TSUNDOKU (JAPANESE)
As my sagging bookshelves will attest, I am the master of tsundoku. This is when you buy a book and then fail to read it. Now if the Japanese can just make me a word that means deferring your backlog because yet another used bookstore’s going out of business and you’re sure that one day you’ll eventually have time to read all five volumes of the Vulgate Cycle…
13. WALDEINSAMKEIT (GERMAN)
The “state of being in the forest.” In other words, how you feel when you’re alone in the woods.
14. YA’ABURNEE (ARABIC)
More of an expression than a word, it translates to “You bury me.” This is a way to tell your love that you would rather die than have to live without them. The sense is after both of you have grown old together, but I have not confirmed yet if it can also be used to express geriatric laziness.
15. YUANFEN (CHINESE)
This word is relatively easy to translate but would require a much longer article to explain. It refers to a social dynamic in Chinese society related to the interactions of “guanxi” and “ganqing,” the former referring to one’s personal network of relationships and the latter referring to the feelings evoked by them (these are both crude descriptions of culturally rich concepts).
“Yuanfen” is the “binding force” that draws two people together as lovers or friends. As I understand it, Chinese philosophy places a great deal of importance on a complicated web of interactions and one’s status within it. Translating it purely as “fate” does an injustice to the weighty Buddhist concepts that underpin it. “Yuanfen” is more than just predestination; it describes a magnetism between two people.
There is a proverb in China that goes, “yǒu yuán wú fèn,” which translates to “have fate without destiny.” Basically, it means, “Just because we were meant to get together does not mean we were meant to stay together.”
Yes, it’s a Buddhist breakup line.
16. ZAPOI (RUSSIAN)
Hunter S. Thompson pretty much wrote “Zapoi: The Novel,” though he called it Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A “zapoi” is two or more days of continuous drunkenness. The next time you show up to your office after a particularly gonzo weekend and your boss asks you where you’ve been, just tell him zapoi. Then break out the alka seltzer and nurse that katzenjammer.