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There’s a Word for That?!


Being a teacher of both French and German has unique challenges, but also distinct advantages. I tell my students that the English language came about in the following way — some Angles and Saxons were living in what is now England and put a form of German into a bag; the Normans invaded, conquered, and added a form of French to the bag; it all got shaken up over time, and out came English. That's overly simplified, of course, and I do go over the society structure that explains why certain categories of words are Germanic and others are more French. It helps my students to see how we can have so many words in our language that resemble either the French or German words they are learning.

The blending of those two languages is what helps to give English the breadth and depth of verbal possibilities. Exactly how large is our English vocabulary? Here's some information from the site of the Oxford Dictionaries:

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.... This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

You would think that, with a vocabulary that large, we would have ways to express just about anything. Through the years the English language has borrowed many words that add a certain je ne sais quoi to our vocabulary. Some borrowings are used well, and others, unfortunately aren't. I cringe every time I hear various faux pas.

An expression that many love to use is coup de grâce, which literally means "a blow of mercy," that kindly ends suffering. In essence it means "a mercy killing." The correct pronunciation is basically /coo-duh-grahs/. (Please note that the p at the end of coup is silent and the c in grâce is pronounced like an s.) When (mis)pronounced /coop-duh-grahs/ it means "a cup of mercy." When (mis)pronounced /coo-duh-grah/ it means "a blow of fat" (gras, with a silent s). And a merciless killing happens each time a person says /coup-duh-grah/, which is "a cup of fat"!

Ok, I know that I'm a French teacher and that most listeners don't catch those subtle nuances, but still! Why use a word, only to misuse it?! I actually have to admit a bit of Schadenfreude (joy at someone else's misfortune) when I hear someone trying to impress others by using coup de grâce, only to unwittingly hit them with a cup of fat.

Recently my dear wife sent me a link to a site with 38 Wonderful Foreign Words We Could Use in English on mentalfloss.com. Some of the meanings and uses of the words were humorous, and others I could have happily lived out the rest of my days without ever seeing. I decided to do some websearching to see what other words I could find. The more I found, the more I knew I wanted that to be the topic for this week.

I'm posting my favorites in alphabetical order. Some of the expressions give fascinating glimpses into the culture of the people who speak that language. It's strange to think that some ideas are important enough they would have a succinct way of expressing them! I hope you enjoy at least some of these as much as I did.

Age-tori (Japanese)
To look worse after getting a haircut

Appel du vide (French)
It is literally "the call of the void." It's the expression used to describe the instinctive urge to jump from high places, for example when close to the edge of a cliff or atop the Eiffel Tower.

Backpfeifengesicht (German)
A face badly in need of a fist

Betsubara (Japanese)
Loosely translates to "extra stomach." It is generally used to describe a woman who always has room for dessert.

Boketto (Japanese)
Gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking

Cavoli Riscaldati (Italian)
The result of attempting to revive an unworkable relationship, translated literally "reheated cabbage"

Cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish)
One who wears his shirt tail outside of his trousers

Cwtch (Welsh)
To hug or cuddle. But it can also mean "a safe place." (Look at that word — someone really needs to deploy vowels to Wales!)

Dépaysement (French)
The feeling one experiences from not being in one's home country; disorientation due to unfamiliar surroundings. It carries the sense of our expression "like a fish out of water," but all in one word.

Desenrascanço (Portuguese)
The art of coming up with a solution to a problem. It's using the file on your nail clippers to tighten a screw.The French have a similar expression lovingly called "système D."

Esprit de l'escalier (French)
It's what happens after leaving a rough conversation, when you think of all the great things you could/should have said, but didn't think of. Translated literally "wit of the staircase"

Faamiti (Samoan)
To make a squeaking sound by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or child

Fremdschämen (German); Myötähäpeä (Finnish)
It's vicarious embarrassment felt on behalf of someone else. It's often felt for those don't have enough sense to be ashamed of themselves.

Ghiqq (Persian)
The sound made by a boiling kettle

Gigil (Tagalog)
The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute

Gökotta (Swedish)
To wake up early in the morning with the purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing

Greng-jai (Thai)
That feeling you get when you don't want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them

Hikikomori (Japanese):
A young person who has withdrawn from social life, often obsessed with TV and video games

Hitzefrei (German)
To be given the day off due to excessive temperatures. Literally "heat free"

Honne and Tatemae (Japanese)
The contrast between a person's true feelings and desires (honne) and the behavior and opinions one displays in public (tatemae, lit. "façade")

Hygge (Danish)
The pleasant feeling you experience while relaxing with good friends or loved ones. It often involves shared food and drink.

Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
The feeling of anticipation when you're waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they're there yet.

Janteloven (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish)
A set of rules which discourage individual success and achievement. Such individualism is viewed as unworthy and inappropriate within communities.

Kælling (Danish)
A woman who stands at her doorstep yelling obscenities at kids

Kummerspeck (German)
Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, "grief bacon"

Kyoikumama (Japanese)
A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement

Lagom (Swedish)
Neither too much nor too little, but just the right amount.

Litost (Czech)
The emotion that is "a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery."

Luftmensch (Yiddish)
A Yiddish word to describe a social misfit who is an impractical dreamer with no business sense. Literally means "air person"

Mahj (Persian)
Looking beautiful after having a disease

Manqué (French)
Having failed to become what one might have been. Unfulfilled or frustrated in the realization of one's ambitions or capabilities

Mencolek (Indonesian)
The old trick of tapping someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them

Myötähäpeä (Finnish)
A shared sense of shame

Nunchi (Korean)
The innate sense that keeps you from saying something inappropriate. It is the ability to respond in a way that allows the other person to save face or not be embarrassed. Literally translated as "eye-measure"

Orenda (Huron)
The power of human will to change the world, summoning up personal strength to effect the change

Ohrwurm (German)
Literally "ear worm." Whenever you get a song or tune stuck in your head, it is an Ohrwurm.

Packesel (German)
The person who gets stuck carrying everyone else's luggage. The translation is "a burro."

Pålegg (Norwegian)
The general word for anything you might consider putting on a sandwich, be it meat, cheese, peanut butter, jelly, lettuce, bacon ... whatever

Pana Po'o (Hawaiian)
Scratching your head in order to help you remember something you've forgotten

Pesamenteiro (Portuguese)
One who shows up at a funeral, just for the food

Pisan Zapra (Malay)
The time it takes to eat a banana

Putzfimmel (German)
A mania for cleaning

Qaamch'ip'q'i (Ubykh)
Literally "a filigree metal ornament on the handle of a whip" An idiomatic term for someone whose good or kind outward appearance is deceptive.

Räkkä (Finnish)
Mosquito season, beginning around mid-June. Also used for a plague of mosquitoes

Resfeber (Swedish)
To be jittery before undertaking a journey

Schlemiel and schlimazel (Yiddish)
The chronically unlucky. The schlemiel is the klutz who might spill his coffee; the schlimazel is the one on whom it's spilled.

Seigneur-terraces (French)
Coffee shop patrons who sit for hours at a table, but spend little money

Sgiomlaireachd (Scottish Gaelic)
When people rudely interrupt you at meal time

Shamozzle (Irish)
A disagreement between a group of men that can involve shoving but not as serious as one that involves punching or kicking

Shemomedjamo (Georgian)
To continue eating food even though you're already full, just because you like the taste of the food so much. This word carries the sense, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"

Slampadato (Italian)
Addiction to the UV rays of tanning salons

Tartle (Scots)
The panicky hesitation you experience just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't remember

Tingo (Pascuense)
To borrow from a friend until he has nothing left

Torschlusspanik (German)
Literally it translates "gate-closing panic." It's the expression used for the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.

Tsundoku (Japanese)
The act of leaving a book unread after buying it

Tsujigiri (Japanese)
To test a new sword casually on a passerby

Übermorgen (German); Lendemain (French); Zeg (Georgian)
In each of those languages the expression means "the day after tomorrow." We have an English rendering of the German — overmorrow, but do any of you use that word?

Uitbuiken (Dutch)
Literally translated as "to expand the stomach." It's taking your time during a meal, relaxing in between courses.

Ulykkesbilen (Danish)
An "ill-fated car"

Vybafnout (Czech)
To jump out and scare someone by saying "boo"

Weltschmerz (German)
A world-weariness, particularly applied to privileged young people.

Xingfu (Chinese)
Happiness or contentedness felt through having everything you want in life and/or having no looming worries

Ya'arburnee (Arabic)
This word is the hopeful declaration that you will die before someone you love deeply, because you cannot stand to live without them. Literally, "may you bury me"

Zhaghzhagh (Persian)
The chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage.


If you can't get enough of these, you can find many more at http://betterthanenglish.com. In reference to that site, I'll use the foreign expression caveat lector (let the reader beware!)

Which of these expressions are you tempted to add to your active vocabulary? Do you have your own favorite you'd like to add in the comments? Next Wednesday's post will be the morning of our first day of classes for this semester. Much to do in the meantime.... 🙂


"Fear is the opposite of faith." — Drew Conley


"She's so deaf she can't hear a pin drop." — anonymous, said in all seriousness in a conversation I was recently took part

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7 Comments on “There’s a Word for That?!”

  1. #1 David
    on Aug 28th, 2013 at 7:46 am

    We were always excited to get Hitzefrei as kids. In retrospect, I’m not sure it really was that much cooler at home (since neither the school or our home had AC), but it was nice to avoid having to try to pay attention on those really hot afternoons.

  2. #2 Ray
    on Aug 28th, 2013 at 9:16 am

    As the story goes about the naming of Canada, a parallel can be drawn with the origin of the English language – there was a great debate over what to name that country. As the story goes, it was decided to put a bunch of letters in a bag and what ever came out would spell its name. The guy who drew them out got “C” as the first letter, he said “C, eh”, then “N, eh”, “D, eh”.

    A lot of our languge come from Latin as well. I recall “ambulatory” is derived from the Latin word ambulo (sp?) – meaning “I walk” from my oldest’s latin DVD a couple years ago. I wonder if “ambulance” is Lawyer for “I chase”…

  3. #3 Emily
    on Aug 28th, 2013 at 9:45 am

    This is a great list! I laughed out loud several times 😀

    I’m very prone to getting “iktsuarpok” when I have company coming. “Kummerspeck” or “grief bacon”? So funny on so many levels. But “tsujigiri”? how do you “casually” test a new sword on anybody?!?

    This made an excellent start to another busy day, thanks!

  4. #4 Carrie
    on Aug 28th, 2013 at 10:02 am

    I just love these! One of these I thought of in connection with someone I love, and it made me smile ruefully to think that it’s common enough in Sweden to have a word for it. Also, the Samoan word for “whistling” to get attention–I remember a group of students that used to do that at BJU, then they would use sign language when they got the other person’s attention.

  5. #5 Theron
    on Aug 28th, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Can we have a pronunciation guide? I know some, like French, German, and Japanese, but my Persian and Inuit pronunciation is less than perfect.

    I like the one about a face badly in need of a fist…

  6. #6 Andrea
    on Aug 28th, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    “Cwtch (Welsh)
    To hug or cuddle. But it can also mean “a safe place.” (Look at that word — someone really needs to deploy vowels to Wales!)”
    -Actually, ‘w’ is a vowel in Welsh. It’s pronounced similarly to ‘oo’. I wonder if this is where “cootchie-cootchie-coo” came from?

    “Desenrascanco (Portuguese)”
    Macgyver (American)
    “The art of coming up with a solution to a problem. It’s using the file on your nail clippers to tighten a screw.”

  7. #7 Rachel B.
    on Aug 28th, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    I loved this post! I’ve seen several things of untranslatable words recently, but this is both the longest list and the only list I knew I could trust to be clean. Thank you–I love languages.

    Also discovered a few words that are true of me or someone I knew–my friend Karen “mencoleks” all the time (I started doing it back), my sister is something of a “putzfimmel,” and I often get “resfeber”y before trips. Oh, and I forever have an “ear-worm” or “ohrwurm” of 50’s jingles from work.