You’ve probably heard the term “wanderlust,” or else seen it scrawled across the front of a magazine or maybe even stamped on the back of a camper van in whimsical, lagoon-blue font. The concept behind wanderlust―the strong desire to wander or travel the world―is universal (who hasn’t experienced the pull of adventure from time to time?), but English doesn’t have its own word for the feeling.
In this sense, wanderlust is not alone. There are so many wonderful and definable—yet untranslatable—words from around the world, and an exploration of these can help us (especially those of us who grew up as English-only speakers) expand our understanding of the depth and beauty of the world around us―and of ourselves and our own feelings.
Here are just a few current favorites!
In Japanese culture, wabi-sabi has a variety of complex interpretations, but in a simplified sense it gets at the notion of finding beauty in imperfection and in authenticity. Within imperfections can be found a fuller understanding of something or someone. The art of kintsugi, for instance, highlights the beauty of cracked pottery by emphasizing those imperfections—thus honoring some of the history of the pottery—by filling the cracks with gold dusted lacquer. You can bring wabi-sabi into your own life by accepting your whole self as it is right now and compassionately building from there, as well as by practicing quieting the mind, slowing down, and spending time being rather than doing.
Yagan (a nearly-extinct language of Tierra del Fuego)
This word boasts the Guinness Book world record for “most succinct word” in terms of summing up a very complex feeling in a single, albeit long, word. An internet favorite that has taken on a life of its own, mamihlapinatapai may describe more than one concept to different people. First, the internet’s preferred definition is that it refers to that relatable moment when two people feel the desire to initiate a connection but are nervous or afraid to be the one to make the first move. Second, and probably closer to how the word would have been used in its parent culture, mamihlapinatapai has been defined as a shared glance that connects two people in a deeper way than mere words could do. The beautiful language this word comes from claims only one living fluent speaker, Cristina Calderón, who has taught her granddaughter some of the language and published books about her life and Yagan culture, history, and language for future learners. Learn more about Cristina and the Yagan culture and language from her granddaughter here.
Sobremesa is the Spanish word for the time after a meal is finished that is spent lingering at the table and relaxing, conversing, and sipping on coffee or cocktails. It puts a name to some of my fondest childhood memories: after a big family meal, my cousins and I would chat with the grownups for a bit then sneak away with pencils and printer paper to draw. Without fail, no matter how long we were gone, when we came back the adults would always still be sitting around the table drinking coffee and talking, ready to serve up another round of berry pie for any lucky kid who happened by. In Spain where it originated, sobremesa is such an integral part of the culture and restaurant experience that local diners expect to wait much longer for a table to open up than tourists might anticipate. Next time you dine with friends or loved ones, consider pausing after the meal to deepen your connections and luxuriate in conversation before rushing off to your next dentist appointment or basketball practice.
You must have at some point in your life found yourself in one of those embarrassing situations where a friend hurls the perfect insult your way, and you open your mouth to retort only to sputter or stand there slack-jawed because that ideal witty response refuses to present itself at the front of your mind, right? Well, the expression l’esprit de l’escalier—literally “the spirit of the staircase”—references those universal moments when we can’t think of a comeback until we’re already on the way home later that night. This feeling is exactly why I prefer writing to speaking. 😉
This word directly translates to “head cinema,” which is actually fairly apt as it is meant to illustrate the moments when we involuntarily observe a scenario playing out inside our minds like a movie―for better or for worse. Sometimes kopfkino takes the form of enjoyable daydreams of superstardom or winning that big game. Other times, it may be something less desirable, like my German friend’s example of being unable to help picturing the grotesquely broken leg she was hearing about and saying, “Ew, kopfkino!”
These words and the countless other “untranslatables” out there can help us understand feelings we may have experienced our whole lives but may not have had the vocabulary to satisfactorily articulate for ourselves. As a result, they help represent what awesome power words can have, giving us a glimpse into the world from different, perhaps new-to-us perspectives and prompting us to learn or to recall the histories of places whose stories we ought to know. In this way an appreciation of world languages can enrich our lives and the fabric of our communities, bringing us all closer together.