Anyone who has studied languages – especially ancient ones like Hebrew, Latin, or Greek – knows that it’s fairly common to run into words, experiences, or phrases that can’t be precisely translated into English. Sometimes it works to put them through the cipher of a more closely related language and then into English, but not always – it’s one reason (among many) that there are so many translations of the Bible.
There are some foreign words, such as schadenfreude (from German) and frisson (from French) that have made their way into English and need no translation, but it turns out there are many others that haven’t been discovered by English speakers…at least, not until now.
Enter Tim Lomas from the University of East London.
He and his Positive Lexicography Project are working on incorporating distinct words for distinct feelings found in other cultures into English, so that we might be better able to express ourselves in our everyday lives.
Lomas says he was inspired after learning about the Finnish concept of sisu, an “extraordinary determination in the face of adversity” that, according to Finnish speakers, goes beyond the ideas of “grit” or “perseverance.”
Basically, Lomas dubbed the emotion “untranslatable” since there was no word in the English language that properly captured the resonance of the original Finnish word.
The discovery kicked off a passion, and Lomas went on the hunt for other such terms, digging through academic literature and quizzing foreign acquaintances. His compilation, still a work in progress, was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology last year.
Below are 15 terms that should serve as a sneak preview.
- Desbundar (Portuguese): To shed one’s inhibitions in having fun.
- Tarab (Arabic): A musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment.
- Shinrin-yoku (Japanese): The relaxation gained from bathing in the forest, figuratively or literally.
- Gigil (Tagalog): The irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished.
- Yuan bei (Chinese): A sense of complete and perfect accomplishment.
- Iktsuarpok (Inuit): The anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived.
- Natsukashii (Japanese): A nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer.
- Wabi-sabi (Japanese): A “dark, desolate sublimity” centered on transience and imperfection in beauty.
- Saudade (Portuguese): A melancholic longing or nostalgia for a person, place, or thing that is far away either spatially or in time – a vague, dreaming wistfulness for phenomena that may not even exist.
- Sehnsucht (German): “Life-longings,” an intense desire for alternative states and realizations of life, even if they are unattainable.
- Dadirri (Australian aboriginal): A deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening.
- Pihentagyu (Hungarian): Literally meaning “with a relaxed brain,” it describes quick-witted people who can come up with sophisticated jokes or solutions.
- Desenrascanco (Portuguese): To artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation.
- Sukha (Sanskrit): Genuine lasting happiness independent of circumstances.
- Orenda (Huron): The power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces such as fate.
If you’re a literary nerd or a word geek, you’re surely going to want more – and you’re in luck, because Lomas has them for you on his website. He also invites you to submit your own contributions, along with any feedback or corrections to existing terms.
If you’re not a literary nerd or word geek, you might be wondering why any of this matters. Well, he has an answer for you, too:
“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations, feelings, and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by. The feelings we have learned to recognize and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.”
Basically, having a better vocabulary could help us to better identify and articulate our feelings, which isn’t a bad thing, no matter how you slice it.
It has even been posited that being able to distinguish exactly what emotion you’re feeling allows you to better cope with reacting to them – a measurement called emotion granularity. People who score high on the scale are said to recover more quickly from stress and are less likely to drink alcohol to cope with bad news.
Marc Brackett at Yale University even found that teaching 10 and 11-year-old children a richer emotional vocabulary can boost their academic success – their end of year grades and behavior both improved as a result.
It’s an interesting take on engaging with the world by getting a better hold on the innards of our own workings, and reaffirmation that our feelings aren’t anything we should be hiding from. If anything, we should be willingly and intentionally taking an even closer look within ourselves.
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