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They Have a Word for That?


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Language and its meaning are amazing tools that we use everyday. We create words with meanings that are useful for us—like “google” something, take a “selfie”, or, as they say out here in California, “shred” some “gnarly tube”.

English has a lot of great words like that—but so do other languages. In that spirit, I found a few words from other languages that have very specific meanings that just don’t quite find their way into a word in English. Some are even quite difficult to define in an English sentence. Below are some of my favorites:

sobremesa [noun](Spanish): the time spent talking around a table, usually after the meal. I wrote about this word this summer while in Spain—it is a common part of Spanish life. While in the US we often rush away from the table, the Spanish linger and have their ‘sobremesa’. It is a basic manifestation of the Spanish culture—bliss in lethargy. There is a Spanish proverb of the same flavor: “How beautiful it is do nothing, and then rest afterwards”. No one like the Spanish to happily indulge in languor.

lagom [adj.](Swedish): Wikipedia defines this as “just the right amount”. It can relate to temperature, time, fit—anything. It is the “Goldilocks” zone of everyday life. To me, ‘lagom’ represents a lot about Swedish culture—nothing too extreme, just a comfortable normality and satisfaction abound. It’s a little Canadian (except for the weather, eh?).

saudade [noun](Portuguese): Wikipedia defines ‘saudade’ as a “deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing”. This one’s cheating a little bit, since I think ‘saudade’ is so devastatingly poetic it’s technically been added to the English language. I don’t blame them; it seems like a word invented for romantic sonneteers, singing songs to their loves and idling about with their thoughts. It’s really perfect for the Portuguese (just kidding J).

kummerspeck [noun](German): Wiktionary translates ‘kummerspeck’ as “excessive weight gained due to emotional overeating”. The word literally means “grief bacon”. If any of these words needs an English equivalent, it’s this one. ‘Kummerspeck’ basically describes America’s obesity problem. Right now, I’m on the way to a barbeque joint for a second lunch that will be entirely ‘grief bacon’. German has a lot of great words like this one, but don’t be fooled; the language actually just lets you string together nouns to create long and ridiculous words, so it’s not quite fair. But I’ll let them have ‘kummerspeck’.

scarpetta [noun](Italian): I had to search a little for a good definition of this one. Mimitabby on forums.wordreference.com cites the Italian saying “fare la scarpetta”, which means “mop up the sauce from the plate”. The ‘scarpetta’ is the implement with which you mop, usually a piece of bread. We’ve all done this, and while it’s not the most proper thing in the world, it is great after pasta. While this may seem uniquely Italian, today at “Colonial Williamsburg” I learned that this word used to have an English equivalent: the sippet. Sippets were stale pieces of bread used to mop up gravy in taverns—too bad we don’t all live in the 18th century!

mamihlapinatapai [noun](Yaghan): This word, from the language of the natives of Tierra del Fuego (southern Chile) is the hardest one on this list to translate. The Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk) describes it as follows: “It is that look across the table when two people are sharing an unspoken but private moment. When each knows the other understands and is in agreement with what is being expressed”. It’s the language that you can speak with those you know well, where words are exchanged with nothing more than glance toward each other. There is so much meaning contained in this short string of characters—this word is the epitome of how language can cover such depth in such a short time. Sadly, there is only one native speaker of Yaghan left.

The special words that languages create are, in most cases, beautifully indicative of their culture and the way they think. As so, some First Nation languages in northern Canada have over forty words for snow—and most of the words above exhibit this quality too. This isn’t to say that English is not a wonderful and meaningful language in itself; that is surely is. In all cases, words become amazing constructions that create more complexity and add to the overall art of the construction of a language.

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