Thursday, July 14, 2011

In a Sense

One of the many things I admire about language is the way a single word can encapsulate a whole concept. Take the English word "home," for instance. It refers to not just a physical domicile, but also to the emotions of belonging and peace we (hopefully) find there with our family and loved ones.

It's interesting to discover what concepts other cultures have captured in a word or phrase. Oftentimes, these words don't have a clean translation into other languages. The literal English translation of je ne sais quois is "I don't know what," but that's not quite what the phrase means. Someone or something possessed of je ne sais quois has allure and charisma and fabulousness that are hard to put into words.

Another French word the English language borrows is haute. It refers to the highest, the best of the best. We see it in haute cuisine, haute couture, and--if you're a reader of Regency romance--haute ton, which is the highest echelon of society. One could say "top cuisine," or "the best fashion," but those don't have the same sense as haute, which denotes an air of exclusivity and luxury, as well as a top ranking.

OMG, it's Jersey Shore. Change the channel, quick!
The German language is riddled with marvelous words that have no clean English equivalent. One that's become quite popular in the Internet age is Schadenfreude, which is delight at another's suffering. One that hits close to home for me is Fremdschämen. This is vicarious embarrassment on another's behalf, and is the reason I cannot watch reality television. I become terribly uncomfortable when I witness someone else behaving foolishly. They seem to have no shame, but I have plenty for us both. That's Fremdschämen.

What words--in English or in other languages--do you know that lack an equivalent in other tongues? Share them in the comments!


  1. Oh YES Fremdschamen. I can't watch reality television either. I die all the deaths of embarrassment that the other person should. It's terrible.

  2. I felt intense Fremdschamen throughout the entirety of the Bush administration. Glad to know there's a word for it!

  3. Those French really have given us a plethora of not-quite-translatable-but-utterly-useful phrases. My grandparents often struggle to articulate their feelings in English, but French does the trick. Must be because of their intense joie de vivre.