6 Foreign Words to Describe What You’re Feeling Right Now
Are you going through something right now that you’re having trouble putting into words? Feeling a little je ne sais quoi, a little pomme de terre? If you’re unable to articulate what you’re experiencing, that doesn’t make your emotions invalid. It just means you need to expand your vocabulary beyond the limitations of English. Dip your toes into other languages, and you will understand such concepts as…
Saudade: Empty Sadness for What Is Lost
English has the word “nostalgia” for feelings about the past. “In Greek,” says one famous scene from Mad Men, “nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound.” That etymology is complete bullshit, as befits anything said by that character, but nostalgia really did initially refer to an exclusively sad emotion. Doctors would diagnose soldiers with nostalgia when they missed life back home.
Today, you won’t have much luck referring to your melancholy as nostalgia. The word more often refers to happier reminiscing. Worse, it increasingly refers to the empty pleasures of seeing icons from the past recreated. If you tell people you’re feeling nostalgic, they’ll think you want to see the cast of Jersey Shore reunite for a Walmart commercial, rather than that you’re lonely and pining for the companionship of childhood.
To describe this sadness of yours, English does offer a word, the word desiderium. We also suggest the Portuguese word saudade because while virtually no English speakers know about desiderium, hundreds of millions of people around the world talk of saudade. Unlike nostalgia, saudade speaks to a longing for something you’re sure to never experience again, which is a component of your sadness you need to acknowledge. In fact, saudade can even cover nostalgia for something that never really existed. Because let’s be honest — you may feel incomplete now, but that earlier stage in your life you long for wasn’t that great either.
Ilunga: Eventually Unforgiving
In 2004, linguists convened to vote on which word, in any language, is the hardest to translate. Third place was a Japanese word, naa. It registers agreement, but there’s more to it than that, which we can’t easily explain here, as the same word can both agree with what someone else says or emphasize what you yourself have just said. Second place went to a Yiddish word, shlimazl. It means a chronically unlucky person, which doesn’t sound terribly complex, but rest assured that it offers some other subtleties as well that no one was able to translate.
The hardest word comes from the Tshiluba language from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The word is ilunga. An ilunga is a person who “is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.” It may sound like a strange and obscure system of responding to offenses, but you should get to know this concept if you live in any of the dozens of states that have three-strikes laws to crack down on repeat offenders. Three-strikes laws are unjust and fail at their aims, but we still need words to describe that attitude.
Perendination: One Step Beyond Procrastination
If you’re feeling lazy, you might decide to procrastinate rather than get down to work. Procrastination, of course, means putting off tasks but more specifically means putting off tasks till tomorrow. “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today,” as the old saying goes. You’ll see this saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain or various other people whose names make advice sound wise.
We don’t really know who first came up the line (Thomas Jefferson is another candidate). We do see one similar adage in the writings of Mark Twain, in which Twain attributed it to Franklin. Only, he jokingly attributed it to Franklin, because it was a piece mocking Franklin’s sayings, and the adage was also a joke. Here’s the phrase Twain wrote: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do day after tomorrow just as well.”
In Latin, we have a word for putting something off for the day after tomorrow. When you do that, you perendinate, which is one step beyond procrastination. Procrastination is for amateurs. There are so many days beyond tomorrow that can bear your workload.
Kummerspeck: Emotional Overeating
When you’re sad — not just from saudade, but for various other reasons, perhaps resulting from your perendination or being an ilunga — the clichéd move is to grab a pint of ice cream and eat it, right out of the container. In The Golden Girls, they tended to break out some cheesecake (because it’s funnier and more absurd to have an entire cheesecake handy), and if even ice cream requires too much preparation for you, you might find yourself instead turning to sleeves of cookies or to chip packets that burst open all over your miserable torso.
In German, they have a word for this type of binge: kummerspeck. The -speck refers to pork fat, so the cleanest translation into English is “grief bacon.” We recommend frying up some bacon when you’re feeling blue rather than relying on readymade snacks because the very act of standing and engaging in productive work may motivate you. It sure beats engaging in more literal kummerspeck, which would involve keeping a dish of hard pork fat in the fridge. When you’re sad, you eat the fat cold without a spoon.
Mudita: Pleasure in Others’ Joy
If you take pleasure in someone else’s suffering, we have an English word for that: schadenfreude. Well, it’s not an English word exactly. It’s a German word, but we pulled it into our lexicon because we find it so useful. How strange then that we don’t have a word for feeling pleasure in someone else’s pleasure, which sounds like a much less perverse instinct. We also have broader adjectives for labeling a spectrum of emotions as secondhand (“sympathetic,” “vicarious”), but we have no single word for shared joy.
In Vietnamese, they call it hỷ. In Chinese, they call it xǐ. In Japanese, they call it ki. Several other languages call it mudita, which was originally a Sanskrit word and is a whole concept in Buddhism. So, next time you feel happy as a consequence of someone else also feeling happy, this doesn’t make you an anomaly experiencing some hitherto undocumented phenomenon. That’s just mudita, and it shows you’re not a psychopath.
Swaffelen: Penis Smacking
When a Dutch website invited people in 2008 to pick the word of the year, all the winning words had English connections. Some people picked bankendomino, related to banks falling like dominoes. Some picked wiien, which meant playing a game on the Wii — we suppose the proper noun Wii is Japanese, but it does exist in English.
The top word of all, while not an English word, originated in the English-speaking parts of the country. The word was swaffelen, and it means swinging a penis around. Pull out a penis and wave it about, and that’s swaffelen. If you bump it into someone, that’s even more an example of swaffelen.
Knowing our readers, at least 12 percent of you are engaging in swaffelen at this very moment. If you have no penis attached to your own body, that’s no obstacle. You can borrow a friend’s. With swaffelen, any penis will do.