Did you know that these words don't exist in English?

If you look around the world, there are several more emotions captured in other languages which describe feelings that cannot be expressed so easily in English

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 9 Feb 2023, 8:08 PM

Last week we looked at a number of words from other languages for which there is no equivalent in English. One of the common features of some of the words we discussed was that they conveyed emotions for which English had no equivalent. This is obviously a reflection of culture; with the famous English “stiff-upper-lip” repressing all unseemly expressions of emotion, the English probably felt no need to devise those terms, since they were not permitted to experience them!

If you look around the world, there are several more emotions captured in other languages which describe feelings that cannot be expressed so easily in English. Love generates many of them. The Tagalog language of the Philippines has kilig for the “feeling of butterflies in your stomach, especially when something romantic takes place”. (They also have gigil for the sense of happiness that comes from being around something or someone so irresistibly cute that you want to hug it!) The Norwegians speak of forelsket to describe the “euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love”. It’s more than “infatuation”; it’s a heady emotion but not a superficial one, less transient than kilig or gigil. Readers in the UAE may be familiar with the Arabic word Ya’aburnee, defined as “a declaration of your hope that you will die before another person because of how unbearable it would be to live without them”. Can there be a more sincere expression of love?

Some terms are so culturally specific that they can’t really exist anywhere else. Like cafune, which is not just Portuguese but specifically used only in the Portuguese spoken in Brazil. It means “tenderly caressing or running your hands through your lover’s hair”. The Japanese phrase Koi No Yokan captures the feeling you experience when you meet someone for the first time and know you’re going to fall in love. That sense of inevitability is also captured in the Mandarin Chinese term Yuánfèn, which relates to the fateful predestination or serendipity that draws one person to love another person. And when things don’t work out, as sometimes happens in love, you have to turn to Russian for razbliuto, which describes “the empty feeling you have for someone you once loved”.

Of course, love is not the only emotion that English words can sometimes fail to capture as succinctly as foreign ones. Waldeinsamkeit (in German) captures “the feeling of solitude and connectedness to nature when being alone in the woods”. Wabi-Sabi is Japanese for “finding beauty in imperfections”. In Spanish, duende conveys a sense of art’s mysterious power to deeply move a person through the emotions aroused by the beauty of an artistic performance. Similarly, the Italians speak of commuovere to describe a heart-warming story that moves you to tears.

Some terms for emotions are startlingly precise: the Spanish have the word estrenar to describe the feelings you get when wearing something for the very first time! In Thai, greng-jai is the term for needing to ask someone for help or directions but feeling awkward or embarrassed to do so because it’s an imposition, or you’re afraid to hurt their feelings. On the other side of the coin, have you found yourself feeling helplessly flustered because someone is either watching, instructing or nagging you and you just aren’t able to do what they’re expecting you to? The Germans even have a word for that feeling, fisselig, which is particularly used when that sense of being out of your depth to the point of incompetence is heightened by an important person watching you mess things up. Maybe you can take refuge in Yiddish and tell him you’re just a schlemiel, an inept or clumsy person, or a schlimazel, a very unlucky person. In that case there’s nothing to do but shrug and say in Japanese, shouganai or shikata ga nai — terms to convey a resigned sense of "what can I do, it just can’t be helped?"

And if all these words make you feel overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity and confusion of trying to speak in a foreign language, don’t worry, the Japanese have a word for it: Yoko-Meshi. And there’s an easy solution for readers afflicted by Yoko-Meshi: just stick to English!


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