Lost in translation: 4 perfect words that have no English equivalent


Lost in translation: 4 perfect words that have no English equivalent

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Who doesn’t enjoy “soubhiyé” from time to time? blackred/Getty Images hide caption

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Who doesn’t enjoy “soubhiyé” from time to time?

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Sometimes they describe an attribute. Or a moment. Or maybe just a vibe.

These are the words from other languages that don’t have a direct equivalent in English, and yet carry so much meaning.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary set out recently to gather some of these words on Twitter, and was flooded with responses from people offering their own.

Everything from “jugaad” in India (a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources) to “tsujigiri” in Japan (trying out your newly-acquired sword by decapitating a random passerby) was put forward.

So we asked four people to tell us more about their favorite non-English words, and how they personally try to translate them.

Non-native English Speakers, what’s a word from your language that you think is perfect that doesn’t have an English equivalent?

Take us to church.

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) February 28, 2023


Submitted by Julie Cafley — Ottawa, Canada

Débrouillard, if you literally translate it, means somebody who removes the fog. The closest thing in English would be the idea of somebody who is resourceful, who’s creative, figures a way through the fog or through the confusion and just gets to results, is efficient. It’s a quality that I love in people, and it’s something that I’m always trying to say in English. And frankly, the word doesn’t exist.


Submitted by Rafa Martínez-Avial — San Francisco, California

Estrenar is a Spanish word that … could mean to break something in, but it doesn’t have to be something you wear. So it could be a new car, a new pair of shoes, or even a new partner that you’re bringing to a party or a social gathering with you for the first time. In general though, there isn’t a general translation, which is funny because I feel like usually I have this problem in the opposite direction where English has so many words that sometimes it’s just very hard to find a Spanish word that conveys the same nuance or the same connotations that an English word.

Haa shagóon

Submitted by Kyle Wark (Tlingit names are X’ulteen and L’aakaw Éesh) — Anchorage, Alaska.

It means our ancestors. But because the Tlingit believe in reincarnation, it’s also our descendants — the ancestors who will come back to us. But it also means a lot more than that, too. It means the history of our ancestors codified in places, stories, songs, names, art, customs, etcetera that guide our lives. The concept of haa shagóon is also related to haa kusteeyix, which means our way of life or our culture.


Submitted by Stephanie Thompson — San Diego, California.

In Lebanese Arabic … soubhiyé refers to that period of time in the morning when no one else is awake but you, and you can either have some quiet time to yourself before the household is awake, or you can invite a friend or neighbor to join you for coffee and tea and you have some catch-up time together before the day get started. My mother often used to have a soubhiyé by herself or with one of my aunts or friends. And now that I am a mom of two myself and I don’t sleep in anymore, I really value that time when you can just gather your thoughts and have that moment to yourself.

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