Journal: News & Comment

Monday, August 16, 2004
# 9:35:00 AM:

Most untranslatable words

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Jason Kottke points to a page that claims ilunga to be the most untranslatable word in the world. It is from a Bantu dialect, and means "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time."

That is pretty good. I also like #3, radioukacz, which is Polish for "a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain."

However, there are other words on the list that puzzle me. I would think that a difficult-to-translate word is one that requires far too many words to convey in another language (ilunga and radioukacz certainly fit). But words like shlimazl (Yiddish, "chronically unlucky person"), naa (local Japanese dialect, basically meaning "yeah" or "right" as far as I can tell), and gezellig (Dutch for "cosy") seem to translate okay, although perhaps some nuances get lost.

But think of words we have absorbed into English because there is no equivalent in our language. I'm thinking of:

  • Schadenfreude - from German, pleasure taken in the misfortunes of others.

  • Karaoke - Japanese, singing to pre-recorded backing tracks of popular songs that have had their lead vocals removed.

  • Ennui - French for a certain variety of listless boredom.

Two other words I like, but which aren't as widely known, are:

  • Sisu - a Finnish word that means, roughly, inner strength, perseverance in the face of adversity, and a strong work ethic. It's an appropriate word to come from a cold northern country, fractured by thousands of lakes, and long under threat of being overwhelmed, linguistically and otherwise, by more powerful neighbours.

  • Skookum - a Chinook jargon word that has come into general use in my region of the world, British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. It has a range of positive meanings, from "'good,' to 'strong,' 'powerful,' 'ultimate' and 'first rate.' Something can be skookum meaning 'cool' or skookum can be 'tough.' A skookum burger is a big hamburger, but when your Mom's food is skookum, it's delicious. [...] When you're skookum, you've got a purpose and you're on solid ground."

Most people who've learned English in this part of the world would understand if you said something was skookum, but those from elsewhere would be puzzled. But now you know too.

UPDATE (December 8, 2004): The definition of skookum above, from the site of Skookum Tools, was apparently written by its founder, Robert McDonald. It's still the best description of the word that I've seen.


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