West London Girl

WLG on untranslatable words


Who knew condensation could be quite so… Bellissimo!

‘I think “hope” is a good word. It’s what helped prisoners survive the camps. It’s what makes most of us keep going. I hope the show will go well,’ journalist and artist Helen Kirwan-Taylor said during our interview in preparation for her forthcoming first solo art exhibition (from 23 June at Themes & Variations), WORDS. Helen often asks friends what their word is.

I rather like ‘serendipity’. Apparently it’s a common occurrence throughout the history of scientific innovation such as Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin and the invention of the microwave oven by Percy Spencer. It’s also one of our language’s most difficult words to translate. And maybe the words that are hardest to translate are the best: they’re elusive, poetic and reflect a culture’s particular identity.

So, after trying to incorporate my fave ‘20s phrases into conversation during the ‘20s party last week, this week I’ll attempt to use the following five untranslatable words during everyday conversation…

  1. Dutch: Gezzeligheid
    A sense of conviviality, cosiness. Dutch friends have tended to describe a particular setting to illustrate its meaning, such as ‘drinking a beer with friends in the sunshine.’
  2. Italian: Culaccino
    The mark left on a table by a cold glass. Who knew condensation could be quite so… Bellissimo!
  3. German: Waldeinsamkeit
    A feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a whole poem about it. (Tricky.)
  4. Japanese: Ukiyo
    Pronounced as ‘oo-ki-yo’, this means the ‘floating world’; a place of fleeting beauty and living in the moment, detached from the bothers of life. (This might be even trickier to get into daily conversation.)
  5. Slovene: Drekec pekec
    Refers to a small, unworthy person, object or an act. Drekec is a diminutive for drek (i.e. shit), but pekec is meaningless; it just rhymes with drekec. There is a children’s book by Slovene author Dim Zupan titled Tri noči Drekca Pekca in Pukca Smukca (Three Nights of Shitty Pitty and Farty Smarty). (This one should be easier.)