Tongue and Tech: The Many Emotions for Which English Has No Words

Among them is the German backpfeifengesicht, "a face badly in need of a fist"

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You know that sorry state of affairs that is actually looking worse after a haircut? Or the urge to squeeze something that is unbearably cute? Or the euphoria you feel when you're first falling in love?

These are common things -- so common that they're among the wonderfully delightful and excruciatingly banal experiences that bind us together as humans. And yet they are not so common, apparently, that the English language has found words to express them. The second-most-spoken language in the world, as a communications system, sometimes drops the ball when it comes to de-idiomizing experience -- a fact that we are reminded of anew in the image above. 

The infographic (full-size version here), created by design student Pei-Ying Lin, visualizes the relationship between a selection of foreign emotion-words and English ones. Depicted in the chart, which is published in PopSci, are five basic emotions (the large, yellow circles), along with several descriptive words related to each of those umbrella emotions (the smaller, green circles). Lin used descriptions from several-language-speaking sources to place foreign words -- the terms for which English has no synonyms, as depicted with large, red circles -- on the map, resulting in an emotion-constellation that is so delightful, it may well inspire in you some gigil (Filipino: roughly, "the urge to squeeze the cute"). 

While Lin's graphic is fantastic, however, it is also incomplete: There are many, many more conditions out there that English has failed to find words for. Which made me curious: What are those conditions, exactly? What are some other emotions and situations for which the grand technology of the English language has proven inadequate? 

Here, selected from the blog So Bad So Good, are some of my favorites:

Age-otori (Japanese): To look worse after a haircut

Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn't want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude

Backpfeifengesicht (German): A face badly in need of a fist

Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love

Gigil (pronounced Gheegle; Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute

Litost (Czech): A state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery

Manja (Malay): "To pamper," it describes gooey, childlike, and coquettish behavior by women designed to elicit sympathy or pampering by men

Pena ajena (Mexican Spanish): The embarrassment you feel watching someone else's humiliation

Sgriob (Gaelic): The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky

Tatemae and Honne (Japanese): What you pretend to believe and what you actually believe, respectively

Tingo (Pascuense language of Easter Island): To borrow objects one by one from a neighbor's house until there is nothing left

Waldeinsamkeit (German): The feeling of being alone in the woods

But my personal favorite -- only because I have occasion to use it approximately 10 times a day -- is this:

L'esprit de l'escalier (French): Usually translated as "staircase wit," the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it


Hat tip Derek Thompson

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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