English Language Blog

Untranslatable Words in English Posted by on Feb 14, 2019 in English Language, English Vocabulary

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As you may know, Transparent Language publishes blogs dedicated to many different languages. One of the great things about my job is that I have the pleasure of reading them all. One topic which appears on many of these pages is the untranslatable word. German is loaded with them, but I’ve seen the subject come up in Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, and others. This prompted me to wonder – are there any untranslatable words in English?

By untranslatable, I mean that there is no single word like it in another language. The German word die Verschlimmbesserung, for example, means to make a situation worse while trying to make it better. You can’t translate that using one word. Or consider waldeinsamkeit, which means to be alone in the woods contemplating the serenity and loveliness of nature. C’mon! That’s both very cool and basically impossible to translate.

What makes English so unique is that it is a derivative language. It is sourced from multiple cultures and historical origins, so our etymology is highly diverse. One of the reasons that there are so many English words is because there are so many languages that we borrow from. Thus, of course, there’s a translation for this word – we appropriated it!

We should eliminate from our discussion any words in English which come from the world of technology. Words like laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and radar (radio detecting and ranging) are now universal but came from acronyms. Likewise, we will not include neologisms, words which have recently entered our language but are not widely accepted as part of our daily language.

Now that we’ve established some of the rules, let’s look at a few of the English words which seem to be untranslatable in any other language.

  • Meme – Translation: The cultural transmission of an idea. Everything about this word is interesting. It was first coined in 1976 by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and he adapted the word from the Greek mimeme, meaning imitation. Dawkins wondered how ideas spread and concluded that, as with genes, cultural transmission creates a pathway to evolution. They spread, they evolve, they go viral. So, now, we have memes on the Internet which are seen, adapted, and shared across the World Wide Web.
  • Facepalm – Translation: The act of slapping one’s head with the palm of your hand in a show of exasperation. Top that one, Germany!
  • Gobbledygook – Translation: Any piece of writing which is so convoluted in its ideas and jargon that it is incomprehensible. It was originally used to describe legislation and political speeches.
  • Spam – Translation: Unwanted emails. This is a word which is now universally accepted. While everyone knows what spam is, it has a uniquely American origin. Spam was originally short for spiced ham. It is the brand name of tinned meat made from portions of pork shoulder. Or, more accurately, unwanted meats.
  • Pimp – Translation: To make something extra fancy and special. Used as a noun, the word pimp is widely recognized as a term for someone who exploits prostitutes. But, in English, we have a secondary verb form of the word which means to refurbish something, like a car or an apartment, in such a way as to make it impressive.
  • Serendipity – Translation: An event which occurs by way of a happy accident. We get the word from the 18th Century author and historian Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Oxford. Walpole wrote about the (fictitious) three princes of Serendip, who “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” We also have the adjective serendipitous, which means something obtained or characterized by serendipity.

Most of the words in this list are slang, but they have withstood the test of time. Meme and serendipity were coined by writers, but this is common in English. Shakespeare invented over 200 words which are now in the dictionary! However they found their way into our language, they are significant because they defy easy translation.

Can you think of any other English words which are untranslatable?

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.