by Lydia Tan
We’ve all experienced feelings or situations that are inexpressible in our English vocabulary, but in other countries, the people there might have the perfect word for that in their language. Here is a list of 12 foreign words that we need to have in our English lexicon:
Ga enak (Bahasa Indonesia) (literal: not delicious)
Meaning: When you feel bad for someone doing something for you
For us Singaporeans, this term is used the same way as “paiseh” in Singlish; when someone goes out of their way to do you a favour or help you and you feel “paiseh” for troubling or being a burden to them, Indonesians use this term to politely reject them or express their thanks. It’s a word that we can understand in our Singaporean context but there is no one English term to express that feeling.
Pelinti (Buli) (literal: to move hot food in your mouth)
Meaning: Trying to cool down food in your mouth
Imagine digging into your favourite dish and then realising (albeit too late) that it’s piping hot. This word from the Buli language of Ghana describes the way you have to deal with the burn; opening your mouth to let the heat out and jostling the food in your mouth to try and cool it down before swallowing. Unless your first instinct is to spit it out, of course.
Uitbuiken (Dutch) (literal: out belly)
Meaning: Sitting back after a long meal
This term encompasses the feeling of satisfaction after you enjoy a good full meal — the act of leaning back or slouching into your chair after eating. Its literal translation describes the way your belly bulges out when you lie back. It allows your stomach to have more space to digest and it’s a time for you to relax after all that eating.
Meaning: The “look” in one’s eyes
This word can be easily translated in other languages like Korean (눈빛; noonbit) and Mandarin Chinese (眼神; yǎnshén) but there is no one English equivalent. It describes the way you look at someone that carries a certain expression or emotion, which can either be positive or negative. Be it an angry glare or a loving gaze, these are both different types of regard. It can also mean be used to describe sight as a noun, as in “don’t go far from my sight”.
Fun fact: This is also the term for a manhole in French.
verschlimmbessern (German) (literal: to make worse + to improve)
Meaning: Trying to make some better but ending up making it worse
We all want to help others when we see them struggling, but sometimes our help can worsen the situation or complicate the problem further. This word describes a situation when someone makes a well-meaning attempt to correct or improve something but ends up making it worse. For example, it can be when you’re trying to get yourself out of a sticky situation but you keep putting your foot in your mouth and getting yourself deeper in trouble.
Pana po’o (Hawaiian) (literal: to strike the head)
Meaning: Scratching your head to remember/recall something
Ever found yourself scratching your head when you forget or misplaced something? This Hawaiian word describes that exactly — it’s so subconscious that even English doesn’t have a specific word to explain it!
Culaccino (Italian) (root word: culo = butt)
Meaning: Water mark/stain left on a surface by a wet/cold glass or bottle
This word is the exact reason why we use coasters and saucers — to prevent these stains from ruining your table. It describes the ‘water ring’ formed by the bottom of a cold glass of drink. It can also refer to the end of a salami or loaf of bread or the dregs in the bottom of a glass or a bottle.
積ん読 (tsundoku) (Japanese) (literal: pile up + read)
Meaning: Buying books but just leaving them on the shelf and never reading them
I’m sure most of us are guilty of this — filling up our shelves with books that are rarely or have never been touched in a long time. Maybe it’s time to ‘konmari’ them away and find a better purpose for them elsewhere!
답답하다 (dapdapada) (Korean)
Meaning: That stuffy, stifling feeling when you’re very frustrated or in a cramped space
You know that feeling of having all this pent-up frustration inside that you’re almost ready to blow? Or that claustrophobic feeling when you’re squeezed in a crowded mall or train? This Korean phrase works for any situation where you feel stuffy or constricted in some way, and is usually accompanied with a chest-hitting action, as if to let out all that discomfort.
Meaning: That back-and-forth process of politely refusing and insisting when someone offers you something
This form of etiquette isn’t just specific to the Iranian culture; we see it in our Asian cultures too. Think back to those times your friend offered to pay the bill or got you an unexpected present, and the two of you had this push-and-pull process of offering and refusing at least 3 times before one of you finally accepts and gives in. That’s what this word describes!
Meaning: The awkward hesitation when you cannot recognise or forget the name of someone you meet
If you’re the forgetful type, this term can be used to describe the situation you usually face when meeting people. It’s that initial moment of panic when someone comes up to you and tries to shake your hand but you have no inkling of who this person is or what their name is, and you have to decide whether to smile and pretend you know or sheepishly ask for their name again.
Tocayo (masculine)/Tocaya (feminine) (Spanish)
Meaning: Someone who has the same name as you
Ever had a “name twin”? This term is simply used to describe a person who shares your name; it can either be someone with your exact full name or just your first name. It can be used as a form of address for that person, especially if he/she is a friend and you feel silly calling someone else by your name.
These are just some of the millions of words that we don’t have equivalent meanings for in English. However, if you’re interested to know about what English words – new or revived – that describe almost every emotion you can have, we have a list for you here.