10 Foreign Words We Wish We Had in English


Sometimes we come to the particularly disappointing realization that there’s just no word to describe the situation, emotion, or act we’re thinking of. Luckily, sometimes it’s just a failure of one language, not of all of them: These handy 10 words from different languages around the world are gaining popularity online because of their ability to say things that English can’t say in just one word, and often because of their relevance to things people talk about on a daily basis.

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1. culaccino: Italian

This word, originally Italian, is used to refer to the little mark left on a table or other surface by a cold glass of water (or another drink). Although this word doesn’t really bear any importance to our lives, and it’s easy enough to describe in English when one has a relevant story, it’s been picked up as an interesting, quirky term that people have started to absorb into their speech (and even more commonly, their online posts) in order to save time or avoid derailing a story.

2. cafuné: Brazilian Portuguese

This Brazilian Portuguese word signifies the act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair. More than just the action, though, the interesting thing about this word is the connotation that comes with it. There’s a clear underlying tone of fondness and often love where it’s used. Cafuné hasn’t exactly been absorbed into the average person’s lexicon yet, but it’s often mentioned in lists of words that can’t be accurately translated into many other languages precisely because of the strong emotional connotation it carries.

3. komorebi: Japanese

If you’ve ever wandered through a thicket, jungle, or forest before, you’ve experienced this Japanese word: the closest translation is sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees and onto the forest floor. A common scene in picturesque movies, some linguists describe this visual phenomenon as a curtain of light falling from the canopy above to the ground below, similar to the effect of sunlight when observed refracting underwater. One important distinction that should be made about this word is that it refers most commonly to the look of the sunlight from eye level and the look of the trees’ shadows on the ground. The word applies much less often (if at all) to the look of the actual canopy of the forest when you look up.

4. pena ajena: Spanish

This Spanish phrase is used to define the discomfort you feel watching someone else in an embarrassing or humiliating situation. It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp, but in English might require a lot of circular explanation to communicate. A common English phrase that has come to signify the same thing is “secondhand embarrassment,” although this word hasn’t officially been added to any dictionary besides UrbanDictionary.

5. mångata: Swedish

This Swedish word describes a very specific sight that’s been experienced by anyone who has seen the moon on the sea at night. The most accurate description in English is the road-like shape created when light reflects on water. Aptly, it most commonly refers to the reflection of the moon and the wavy, generally triangular path that seems to lead up to it when one looks from the shore off to the horizon.

6. forelsket: Norwegian

There are several misconceptions surrounding this Norwegian word, the most significant one being that it simply means love. In fact, on translating websites (Google Translate among them) the word is only listed as “love” in English. But in fact, it’s a word that describes a much more specific aspect of love, specifically the euphoria that comes with falling in love. The intricacies involved with the particular definition of this word definitely make it one of the most interesting untranslatable words in a foreign language.

7. l’esprit de l’escalier: French

Practically everyone has experienced the feeling that this French phrase describes. The word-for-word translation is something like “staircase wit,” or “the spirit of the staircase,” to be even more literal, but it’s actually a reference to being able to come up with something to say regarding a topic of conversation, after the conversation has already finished. A good example that occurs to many people is thinking of a good “comeback” to an insult that happened quite some time ago, or a funny joke about a no-longer-relevant subject.

8. saudade: Portuguese

This Portuguese word refers to the vague and constant desire for something that does not and sometimes cannot exist. The closest available word in English has been agreed on by linguists as “nostalgia.” But this is also agreed to be a very inadequate word to describe the feeling of a constant longing and almost yearning that persists in the back of your mind even when you turn your thoughts to other places. Nostalgia is also an inaccurate translation because saudade can be felt not just for things that you once had and have lost, but also for things you never had.

9. sobremesa: Spanish

In Spanish, sobremesa is the word for sharing conversations after lunch or dinner with the people you just dined with, a common phenomenon across the world that for some reason hasn’t made it into official dictionaries in many other languages besides Spanish. It should also be noted that sobremesa is used much more frequently in Mexican Spanish, but is not exclusively used in Mexico. Rather, it’s used with less frequency in Spain as well as other Spanish-speaking countries across the world.

10. gigil: Filipino

If you’ve ever felt the need to pinch or squeeze something that is cute to an unbearable level, you’ve experienced what in Filipino (not to be confused with Tagalog, another language of the Philippines) is called gigil. It’s a fairly universal experience that many people share when they look at pictures of tiny animals, hold small children, or experience anything else with a level of fondness. This point is why gigil has been another unofficial lexical expansion in many people’s regular speech and informal writing (particularly online).

English has actually borrowed a surprising number of words from other languages in the past, from jungle to schadenfreude, from sombrero to karaoke. Therefore, even though we don’t have words like the ones listed above, we could soon be seeing any of them officially added to the English language sometime soon. The key is getting people to use them: If words like “googling” and “selfie” could be officially absorbed by the English language, then the combined usage of these words by many English speakers can easily guarantee an extra page or two in our dictionaries.