In this article we’re going to look at 6 words that defy a simple one-word translation. This is often because of the peculiarities of the culture, the climate, the traditions or habits that are then reflected in the language.  


This Danish term is all about finding cosiness indoors through a warm fire, blankets, comfortable (IKEA!) furniture, warm comfortable clothing, hot drinks and hot food, and the feeling that all that gives us. In English you’d say I love feeling warm and cosy on cold winter days. It’s closely related to the climate and way of life in Denmark. Let’s bring hygge into our lives!


Staying with our Scandanavian friends, it’s origins are in Flyg (flight) and Skam (shame), and describes “The Guilt of Air Travel”, which is ironic since Sweden is a country where people travel 7 times more than the world average! Sweden’s very own climate activist, Greta Thunberg,  may also be to blame for the popularity of this neologism.


This German word is used in English; by intellectuals obviously. There’s no English word for this term which means “to gain pleasure from another person’s misfortunes.” It could be a person you know who is more successful than you, and you dream of something going wrong in their life! Is it only Germans that get these feelings?


Moving away from Northern Europe we find the interesting Japanese word Ikigai. It’s usually translated as your ‘reason for being’, or raison d’être. ‘Iki’ in Japanese means ‘life,’ and ‘gai’ describes value or worth. Therefore, your ikigai is your life purpose and what brings you joy and inspires you to get out of bed every day. What’s your Ikigai? Have you found it yet?


This Spanish verb could be translated in English as stay up all night, or in informal English, pull an allnighter, but no single verb exists to express this. Does it have something to do with bars and discoteques being open all night? In my younger days in Barcelona I certainly enjoyed trasnochando.


One of my most favourite words in English, which means to choose only the best of something and discard the rest, but also, to only pick the ideas that support your argument and ignore the others in a study, report, etc. Ask any politician about the secrets of cherrypicking. And, yes, you can pick cherries in England, but if you do, only choose the ripest, reddist, most delicious ones!

The fact that one language can express something in one word that another language needs two or more to say the same thing can lead to speakers of that language to think that their language is superior in some way.

However,  every language has words like these, and if you like one enough, then you can import it into your language directly as a loan word.  English does this a lot. And if yours doesn’t, well, C’est la vie!

What other examples do you know?

For an extensive list of untranslatable words from English to Spanish and visa-versa, check out my new book, coming soon!

What Does Hygge Mean? | The Word Counter

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