Language is a diverse and bizarre creature (oh, how I love thee), and it occasionally creates some gorgeously odd words. Personally, I think English could benefit from adopting a few more of these; we’ve never been shy about language borrowing, why stop now!? Today, I felt like sharing a few of my favourites.
Saudade is beautiful Portuguese for something that English speakers might describe as an intense longing for something or someone that may never be seen or exist again, or may never have existed at all. Now that’s deep.
L’esprit de l’escalier (French)
Remember last week, when you thought of the best comeback ever – about 4 hours too late? Well, you’re not alone in this experience and the French even coined a cute phrase to sum up that particular frustration. L’esprit de l’escalier (literally, staircase wit) describes that moment of epiphany; when the clouds part to reveal a witty comeback – while you’re already walking away down the stairs.
I’ll leave my favourite writer, Milan Kundera, to explain this remarkable term: “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
Have you ever been so excited for a visit, (or a delivery) that you keep getting up to look outside for Brad Pitt, your mail carrier, or the guy from UPS? Well, that odd combo of feeling and action is iktsuarpok.
We call a Pilkunnussija a “Grammar Nazi” (also known as Half the Damn Internet). This term refers to people who like to correct small and inconsequential language mistake. It literally means “comma fucker”, which is so funny I just. can’t. even.
English also boasts an absurd number of words that at first glance appear to be entirely foreign. Well, thousands of English words are foreign in origin, but let’s not go there just now – I won’t shut up until next week. This one means “Of the north”. Comes from the seven stars of the Great Bear.
Vladmir Nabokov describes it best: “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 of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom”
I suspect the English variation on Toska is a drawn out Ughhhhhhh!
L’appel du vide (French)
Literally “The call of the void”, this expression is also more literal than existential. It describes the instinctive urge to jump from high places – which surely has some opportunity for existentialist analysis lurking in there.
Zalatwic is a Polish word which on first glance appears to have an equivalent English translation – something like a “cash-only job”. However, Zalatwic is subtler than a simple under the table transaction. Think of it more like using all available connections, legit or otherwise, to get something done quickly and efficiently.
Mamihlapinatapai (Yagan: an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego)
This is classic – and certainly something everyone has experienced. This phonologically intimidating word describes a meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to begin. Also known as Trouble.
Now, considering that I speak less than 30% of the languages I’ve just listed here, if you’re a native speaker and know better – tell me! I’d love to hear explanations of these words from native speakers.