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Untranslatable

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Di nhau in action.

Di nhau in action.

There's a term in Vietnamese "di nhau" which basically translates as "meeting friends to have a cheap beer at a streetside stall, eat small plates of food and shoot the breeze" but, aside from that clunky and rather lengthy explanation, it has no English equivalent except perhaps "having a barbie" ...

Its elegance succinctness is shared by the Spanish word "Botellon" which translates literally as "big bottle" but also means "a group of young people, drinking takeaway booze outdoors, listening to music".

Kind of like a street-party, it was a phenomenon that arose when uni students and other youngsters decided it was too expensive to drink in bars, so they just set up shop somewhere outside with store-bought grog.

The English language loves a great untranslatable word, as evidenced by our co-opting of foreign terms as diverse as "deja-vu", "schadenfreude", pyjamas, trek and juggernaut.

Of course, it also works the other way and I'm told the Vietnamese language has no real equivalent for the English word melancholy, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

Over the years, I've come across a bunch of words that don't seem to have English equivalents. Here's a few that have caught my attention (and sorry I'm not using all the correct letters and accents and symbols).

Sprezzatura (Italian): Which means "making the difficult look easy" but has a far more satisfying explanation, here, if you're interested.

Dechainee (French): Means "unchained" but in slang usage translates to someone saying "going off" or being very excited aka "I'm on fire, tonight".

Deadly (English): I've always been struck by the black humour of indigenous Australian's usage of this word to mean "good". I don't think you find this take anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Thus The Deadlys.

Backpfeifengesicht (German): An absolute pearler. Means a face that needs to punched.

Je suis un chaud lapin (French): Another beauty. Translates as "I am a hot rabbit" but means a bloke who loves having sex aka "a mad rooter".

Ga mong do (Vietnamese): References prostitutes. Means "chicken with painted red fingers".

Koi No Yokan (Japanese): Someone sent me this one. It's not the same as "love at first sight", more a sense that the you and a person you've met are going to fall in love. One of the greatest feelings on earth.

Squirrel (Australian): A special type of beach-side hipster who wears pastel colours, rolled up chinos, sports a beard and often resembles an 1800s bush explorer.

Of course, most of these words will never seep into common usage but it's worth noting how much we owe to foreign terms.

According to The Telegraph, "Brian Whitaker, the Middle East correspondent of The Guardian, once provided a list of common English words and asked which one was the odd man out".

The words were: admiral, alchemy, alcohol, alcove, algebra, algorithm, alkali, almanac, amalgam, aniline, apricot, arsenal, arsenic, artichoke, assassin, aubergine, azure, borax, cable, calibre, camphor, candy, cannabis, carafe, carat, caraway, checkmate, cipher, coffee, cotton, crimson, crocus, cumin, damask, elixir, gauze, gazelle, ghoul, giraffe, guitar, hashish, hazard, jar, jasmine, lacquer, lemon, lilac, lime, lute, magazine, marzipan, massage, mattress, muslin, myrrh, nadir, orange, safari, saffron, samizdat, sash, sequin, serif, sesame, shackle, sherbet, shrub, sofa, spinach, sugar, sultana, syrup, talc, tamarind, tambourine, tariff, tarragon, zenith, zero.

"The answer, of course, is 'samizdat', an untranslatable Russian word meaning 'underground dissident writing'. The rest are all Arabic words that, during the seven centuries of Islamic occupation of Spain, Portugal and parts of southern France, were equally untranslatable," writes The Telegraph.

Rightio, I'm on holidays ... that's it for me, it's di nhau time.

Feel free to share your own untranslatable word.

I'm currently on semi-leave. Moderation will be a little hit and miss because of the time difference.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

65 comments so far

  • Have you ever thought a brilliant comeback that you wish you would have said, but only much later after the fact? The French have a word for it --- L’esprit de l’escalier ("the spirit of the stairs"). It's that moment when you think of the perfect thing you wished you'd said, but it's too late!

    Commenter
    Lucky coin
    Date and time
    November 07, 2012, 7:12PM
    • That's not a word ... it's a phrase.

      Commenter
      Farr
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 8:30AM
  • "Backpfeifengesicht (German): An absolute pearler. Means a face that needs to punched" - I am a better man for having learnt this word.

    Commenter
    Mero
    Date and time
    November 07, 2012, 7:27PM
    • I've been a fan of Insh'Allah ever since spending time in the Middle East.

      The literal is god willing, but it's more akin to a "fingers crossed" or a hope that ones desire fits within the plans the universe has for us all.

      Commenter
      SmartMonkey
      Date and time
      November 07, 2012, 8:57PM
      • In my experience as a project leader in the gulf: it also tended to mean: if Allah himself does it. No one else seemed to be planning to do it.

        Commenter
        SEANRE
        Location
        on a train
        Date and time
        November 08, 2012, 3:57PM
      • Also used in the Middle East, by Isrealites: "Nish tagea¨.
        This means ¨to go crazy¨or that ¨it´s terribly bad luck to be Palestinian¨,depending on how literal you want to be.

        Commenter
        adam
        Location
        cochamumba
        Date and time
        November 09, 2012, 8:56AM
      • @SEANRE. 24 Carat gold there my friend.

        Commenter
        elloco
        Date and time
        November 10, 2012, 8:50PM
    • Ooh it's been a while since my last post. I like this topic so I'm throwing in some of my old boozing vernacular, as the silly season is fast approaching.

      When my mates and I were at a bar or party and switching from beer to mixed spirits we would use the Star Wars reference "going to the dark side" (usually bourbon/rum and cola). There was no phrase for switching back because that never happened.

      In reference to Whitaker's list, the word 'Assassin' derives from the Arabic, 'Hashishin'. Tribal warriors were know to force their wives to smoke huge amounts of pot through Hookah pipes then drink the bong water to make themselves fearless in battle.

      Modern day potheads still kill one another, but only in video games. Their biggest battle is getting off the couch to get down to 7-11 for a Slurpee and some Pringles.

      Commenter
      Yeah_Nah!
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 12:06AM
      • Current favourites from German:
        Muskelkater: "muscle hangover": the day after sports
        Lebensmüde: "tired of life": used when someone decides to do something probably suicidal, e.g. riding a bike in Sydney

        Commenter
        fb
        Date and time
        November 08, 2012, 3:55AM
        • Well, for things like "coffee" and "sugar" it's not really that they're untranslatable, only that the product in question wasn't well known by English speakers.

          I like the Spanish word Pachanga, which is a party where everyone brings their own booze and snacks.

          Oh, and "tacos", which is a type of food. And "quesadilla". And "pipian". And "enchiladas con mole". Now I'm hungry.

          Commenter
          JEQP
          Date and time
          November 08, 2012, 5:01AM

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