The Holes in Your Tongue

After four years of neglect, I’ve started cultivating my French again in hopes of nursing the wilted flower back to some semblance of health.

You'll have to endure my pirmitive sketches for the duration of this post.

Bonjour! Je am....wait, I mean, I suis...nevermind.

As I rifle through my old books and dictionaries, I’ve been reminded of several French terms that have no English equivalent, and these foreign terms represent holes in our language (or tongue).

(What did you think the title of the post meant? That it would be about body piercings? No, sir! (p.s. Piercings will be the subject of next week’s entry))

I believe a person can eventually explain pretty much any notion in most any tongue he speaks, but one language may require a whole clumsy assortment of brushes and paints to create a certain image which another language can vivify perfectly with a single brushstroke. This concept fascinates me, so I’ve been investigating words in many languages that have no direct English equivalent.

Here are a few French ones:

Sortable : (adj. French) A word describing a person you can take places without being embarrassed.

e.g. Did you seriously invite Caleb to come along tonight? That guy is not sortable.

Dépaysement : (n. French) The sensation that comes from not being in one’s native country, the feeling of being a foreigner or immigrant. I think Moses was experiencing a heavy dose of  dépaysement when he described himself as “a stranger in a strange land.”

e.g. In another life, I would have been an explorer-poet, fueled by wanderlust and dépaysement.

Bouffer : (v. French) To eat, but normally used for animals or in a very informal (and rude) way for people. If the English word “gobble” were more crass it would be kind of similar to bouffer.

One of my French professors taught me this word just before I moved to France back in 2004, saying it was “the kind of word real French people used”.  Well, during one of my first formal dinners with my host family, someone asked me how the meal was, and I said c’était si bien que j’ai trop bouffé (it was so good that I gobbled up too much). They all looked at me appalled. Later I asked one of the children why my comment was so poorly received, and he said c’est vraiment, vraiment impolit! (It’s really, really impolite). Thanks a lot, professor Sandarg.

"Zee American students believed me when I said "bouffer" is a normal word for French people!... Tomorrow, I'll teach zem zat it's zee custom for French people to greet each other wiz a vigorous belly pat! Hawh-hawh-hawh-hawh!"

(Actually Professor Sandarg was very good, and I would highly recommend him to anyone wanting to learn the intricacies of conversational French)


I asked my brother, Don Jacques, who lived in Japan for 3 or 4 years, if he had encountered any Japanese terms that we have no English counterparts for, and he said there were many. Like these:

Komorebi : (n. Japanese) This means “sunbeams streaming through the leaves of trees.”  Can you imagine what John Keats could have done if the English language had a single word for this ineffably beautiful aspect of nature?!

The komorebi danced upon the wings of a passing butterfly, and then fell upon her honey-ginger hair, playing there like a mermaid splashing in the shallows…

Natsukashii : (adj. Japanese) This is an adjective, usually uttered by itself, which translates roughly to “this experience is causing me to feel nostalgic and to recall fond memories.”  What a useful word for expressing that common sentiment succinctly!

e.g. Natsukashii!

Kyoikumama : (n. Japanese)  A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement and excellence. AKA a “tiger mom”.


The words and phrases of a certain culture can suggest a lot about its national mentality. For example, the Dutch vocabulary, seems to corroborate the nation’s light-hearted reputation. The word uitwaaien is Dutch for “taking a walk in windy weather just for fun.”

Goedemorgen, gentle damsel. Won’t you join me for a uiwaaien?

Goedemorgen, gentle damsel. Won’t you join me for a uitwaaien?

Others from various other languages:

Kummerspeck : (n. German)  Literally, it means “grief bacon.” Mmmmm!! It describes the excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating.

e.g. All the kummerspeck she has put on since he left her just shows how much she loved that loser. There’s a mighty big heart somewhere underneath all that grief bacon … a mighty big heart, indeed.

Drachenfutter : (n. German) Literally it means “dragon fodder.” It describes guilt-gifts or peace offerings made by guilty husbands to their wives. That’s depressing.

Backpfeifengesicht : (n. German) This means “a face that cries out to have a fist thrown at it”.

e.g. I plead not guilty, your honor, because I merely gave the young man’s Backpfeifengesicht what it was requesting.

Mamihlapinatapei : (n. Yagan) The wordless, yet weighty and meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate a romance but are both reluctant to begin.

Jayus : (n. Indonesian) – A joke told in such a poor and unfunny fashion that one cannot help but laugh at it.

Litost : (n. Czech) – Author Milan Kundera said “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The nearest definition would be “a condition of agony and suffering created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.”

Tartle : (v. Scottish) The act of hesitating and rambling while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name. It’s perfect that this word is Scottish! Observe:


And this here little lady be the youngest of our twelve girls. Her name, it' know the curious thing about having wee ones about is the... they bring into your domicile! Interesting word, "domicile" is. You ever considered that, sir?...Anyway, as I was saying, let's eat that hagus!

Prozvonit : (v. Czech) – To call a mobile phone and let it ring only once so the other person will call back, saving the first caller the expense of the call.

Cafuné : (v. Brazilian Portuguese) –To tenderly run one’s fingers through someone’s hair.

Ilunga : (n. Tshiluba (Southwest Congo)) – This word, famous for its untranslatability, means “the stature of a person who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense.”

Can you imagine saying all that with only THREE syllables???  It reminds me of this clip from an old 90’s movie:


It was a zang movie!  Here are just a few others:

Wabi-Sabi : (n. Japanese) –a way of life which emphasizes the search for beauty within the imperfections of life and the peaceful acceptance of the natural cycle of growth and decay. No wonder hippies always like eastern religions.

L’appel du vide : (n. French) – Ok, so this one is actually a phrase, which means it doesn’t really belong here, but it was too interesting to omit. Literally it is “the call of the void.” It describes the instinctive urge to jump off of high places to certain death. I’m comforted to know that I’m not the only person who hears l’appel du vide when I’m perched on some precarious height.

Duende : (n. Spanish) –The mysterious and uncanny power a work of art has to deeply move a person. How do we not have an equivalent to this beautiful concept?

Sobrinos : (n. Spanish) — Nephews and nieces, collectively (like the word siblings, it describes both genders in one group). Actually, my friend and I finally filled this void in English, by coining an equivalent to sobrinos. (You can read about it here.)

Saudade : (n. Portuguese) – Among the most beautiful of all words, translatable or otherwise, this describes “the feeling of longing for someone or something you love and which is lost.”

Luftmensch : (n. Yiddish) An impractical dreamer with no sense for conducting business.

Gumusservi : (n. Turkish)  Moonlight shining on the surface of water.  Turkish Meteorologists can easily be poets!

Mencolek : (v. Indonesian) You know that trick where you tap a person on the far-away shoulder from behind to hoodwink them into turning the wrong way? That is a Mencolek.

Faamiti : (v. Samoan) To make a squishing, squeaking noise by sucking air through the lips in order to gain the attention of a child, dog, or perhaps a luftmensch.

The “ingredients” of a new language (grammar patterns & vocab) are difficult enough to learn, but to develop the reflex that reacts to the “texture” of the words is incredibly tough. For example, when a native English speaker hears “dancer” he doesn’t think of “one who moves to the rhythms of music.” Instead, a vast network of mental imagery flashes through his mind. So, the words listed here, the “holes in your tongue”, should not be enjoyed for our own English terms that awkwardly describe them, but instead for their own textures. Understanding them should be like sipping on a fine beer: The enjoyment is not derived from knowing which specific ingredients the brewer used, but from the complete experience, sensation and emotion that comes from the liquid pouring over your tongue and sliding down into your throat.

Maybe I got a little carried away with that last bit, but it’s only because I love language very much. Anyway, can you please provide some example sentences for the ones that I didn’t have time to get to? Also, do you know of any other foreign words for which there is no direct English equivalent? I would love to hear them.


Many of the above words above can be found in Adam Jacot de Boinod’s book ‘The meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World.’


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19 Responses to “The Holes in Your Tongue”

  1. lacuenco Says:

    I really loved this article – I dream of some day being a PR consultant to work out trade cooperation between companies from different countries! Language is super awesome – Just imagine how much more exciting the pure language will be! Here are just a few words that I know in German that don’t have any English equivalent. (sorry about the capital Ü (umlauts) I don’t know how to make a lowercase umlaut on my keyboard…

    Waldeinsamkeit: The feeling of being left alone in the woods.

    Kitsch: Tacky, gaudy art or trinkets, the kind of thing purchased by people with bad taste (perhaps this includes most of us more than we’re willing to admit?). Art that is pretentious or overly sentimental.

    Zhaghzhagh: Deriving happiness or pleasure from the misfortune of others.

    Schlepp: This basically refers to a concept that many of us are familiar with but don’t have a word for – it points to the labor of carrying a very heavy object a very long way. (schelppen can be translated into english simply with the words tug, tow or drag but they don’t catch the full meaning of the word)

    And my all time favorite is right here:

    FahrvergnÜgen: This referrs to the pure pleasure of driving. It’s derived from two words Fahren (to drive) and Das VergÜgen (pleasure).

  2. Danielle Says:

    I’m going to have to study this post for months, so I can start adding all of these interesting new words to my vocabulary.

    Here’s one from my family:
    Kabucha (n. Japanese) Literally it means pumpkin, but often it was used in our house to describe someone (usually a child) with a big round head
    e.g. Did you see that new Jacques baby? What a Kabucha!!!

  3. Crystine Says:

    Languages are awesome!! I want to re-study French again as well…seems like six years of immersion school down the drain if I don’ t!! I am currently studying Japanese right now though :D. My Japanese Tudor has told me some of these words too, but the funny thing with Japanese is that different areas use different words to mean certain things… Um like for example the area my tutor is from(actually one of the places most devastated by the tsunami) use a word that means ” this is uncomfortable” or “something is not right…” as on like your bra strap is twisted or a piece of your clothing is jabbing you, its fitting wrong, that kinda thing. I don’t remember the word, but I will ask her again when I get home from Hawaii and I will post it hahaha. I can ask for more too.

  4. Joan Says:

    I think there is a word in English and most other languages that there isn’t in French. It is victory (as in battle). No need I suppose.

    What do you mean you’re “almost” half French?

    • a time to cast away stones Says:

      I’m a card-carrying member of the most embarrassingly-named tribe of native Canadians, and that’s on dad’s side, which makes me only seven sixteenths French. As for the English word “victory”, it actually comes from the French word “victoire”. So there’s that.

  5. Crystine Says:

    ştrungăreață: (Romanian) – the gap between your two front teeth.
    My brother’s fiancee told me this one today hahaha.
    (I still haven’t seen my Japanese tutor again so I don’t know the other words yet xD, she went back to visit Japan)

  6. Vocabu-Nary « The Ooh La La Life Says:

    […] on this topic: Check out The Holes in Your Tongue by a fellow language loving blogger: Share this:ShareEmailFacebookTwitterStumbleUponDiggLike […]

  7. MaryanneVL Says:

    Very funny!! And yes the Dutch realy do go outside to ‘Uitwaaien’, especially when it is windy and we don’t need a beach or sea nearby to do it.
    Just one note. Under the picture you wrote uiwaaien instead of uitwaaien. It now literaly say union(ui)-waving(waaien). Never heard that expresion.;-)

  8. a time to cast away stones Says:

    Thank you for reading, and for the correction there! I have rectified it in the caption.

  9. Ashlee Says:

    Just as an aside (as this article is from nearly a year ago): there is an English sort-of equivalent for duende. It’s called Stendhal syndrome. You can read about it here:

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