10 Untranslatable Words

When time is money, why use a dozen words when one will do? Unfortunately for many of us there are some situations or concepts which are so difficult to describe that the English language just isn’t up to the job. Luckily for us it’s a big world and chances are if you find yourself tongue-tied in trying to describe your feelings for an ex or an unimaginably terrible hangover then some other culture almost certainly has a word for that.

1 Biritululo (Kiriwani)


Everybody loves a good yam, but in New Guinea, these super vegetables are so popular that boasting about yours could lead to an all-out fight. That’s when it’s time for Biritululo, or settling of disputes by comparing yams.

2 Bilita Mpash (Bantu)

It perhaps reflects on our culture somewhat that in English we have the word nightmare for a bad dream, but no opposite equivalent. We can only assume that in the Niger-Congo region of Africa they have sweeter sleeps, as Bilita Mpash means not just a good dream, but a ‘legendary, blissful state where all is forgiven and forgotten’. The word has reportedly made its way into African-American slang in the bastardised form ‘beluthathatchee’.

3 Tartle (Scottish)

Head in Hands

We’ve all experienced the awful social embarrassment of being introduced to somebody you have already met and drawing a complete blank when it comes to their name. Luckily some smart Scot has concocted the perfect get-out with the word ‘Tartle’, meaning to hesitate in recognising a person or thing. Providing an easy way to break the awkwardness by exclaiming: “Please excuse my tartle.”

4 Razbliuto (Russian)

Angel hearts

Are you one of those people who remains friends with their exes? Find it hard to reassure your current partner that no old feelings remain? What you need is Razbliuto, the feeling that you have for someone who you once loved but now do not.


5 Katzenjammer (German)


It’s hard enough doing anything with a hangover, least of all succinctly describing how you feel. Luckily the Germans have this one covered. If it hurts even to move your eyes and the night before is nothing but a hazy memory of drinks which now induce nothing but a sense of nausea to recall then chances are you’ve got yourself a katzenjammer.

6 Drachenfutter (German)

You’ve got to hand it to the German’s – they’ve really focussed their word invention around the important things in life, namely drinking. A ‘drachenfutter’ is a gift bought for a wife by a husband who has stayed out too late. Brilliantly this word literally translates as ‘dragon fodder’ and the definition has been expanded in Germany to include any present given out of guilt for having too much fun.

7 Cavoli Riscaldati (Italian)


Maybe unsurprising for the Italians to combine food and romance, but unfortunately this term deals with the unhappier elements of both worlds. Literally ‘reheated cabbage’ it means to attempt to revive a well-finished love affair.

8 Qualunquismo (Italian)

A word which could almost certainly be added to most modern societies’ lexicons, qualunquismo means to be indifferent to political and social issues. OThe term is originally derived from the name of satirical political journal L’uomo qualunque.

9 Ondinnonk (Iroquoian)

A truly uplifting word from the Iroquois tribes of North America, Ondinnonk means the soul’s innermost desires and its angelic nature. To follow one’s ondinnonk can often lead to positive and kindly acts.

10 Zalatwic (Polish)

Born out of the difficulties imposed by the state during Poland’s Communist regime, zalatwic means to accomplish something unofficially using acquaintances. This could range from trading simple foodstuffs to swapping homes.

Tom Parnell is a writer who spends his time trying to avoid katzenjammers and working with nice people like jobsite Monster to promote engineering jobs.

Posted by on February 10, 2011. Filed under Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to 10 Untranslatable Words

  1. Drachenfutter? Never heard this one before, and I’m German…

  2. Same with me: Never heard of “Drachenfutter” before and I’m German too.

    Instead, another word I heard that is not to be translated from German in English is: Fernweh.
    It means that you want to go on holiday, that you are craving to see the whole wide world (but can’t do so at the moment).