Though this post’s title comes from a cheeky sign found in London’s “tubes,” that’s not what this post is about.  This is the last I’ll be speaking about the London Tube…sorry if Google led you astray.  Stick around, though; you might enjoy yourself…

In my various non-English language studies (to date, Spanish, Filipino, plus some French, Arabic, ASL, Ancient Greek, and a little Russian from the kids at recess), as well as my various travels, I’ve occasionally stumbled across a word or phrase which just doesn’t seem to have an English equivalent, and takes longer to explain in English than it does to just say the foreign word.  We often call these incidences lexical gaps; where, try as we might, we English-speakers just haven’t created a word that captures the impact of what we’re trying to say as well as those wacky foreigners have (heck, we haven’t even come up with a word for “lexical gap!”).

Here are a few of my favorites thus far…

Schadenfreude” – (German) Joy/pleasure at the pain/misfortune of others (so cool that the wikipedia page for this features a discussion of the “Leftorium” episode of the Simpsons)

“Les Mot Juste” – (French) Literally, “The perfect word.”  Used when a word/phrase so perfectly captures the moment, it transcends the mere letters on the page (kind of like Ned Flanders’ failed store and Schadenfreude).

Insha’Allah” (0r Enshallah) – (Arabic) Literally, “God willing.”  Often used as a reply to a request, or when making plans.  In context, though, it’s used as a culturally-accepted blow-off (“So, you’ll lend me $50 tomorrow?” “Ahh, Insha’ Allah.”), absolving the speaker from any responsibility (“If it’s God’s will, but, I gotta tell ya, the forecast isn’t looking so good right now…”).

“Utang na loob” – (Filipino) A debt of gratitude which can never fully be repaid; for example, if I push you out of the way of a bus, I’ve saved your life.  In your mind, we’ll never really be “even,” and you’ll treat me with according respect and gratitude for the rest of our lives (I experienced a certain amount of this as a former missionary to the community’s kids when I last returned for a visit).  Not to be confused with other kind of debt, where tangible repayment in full ends the feelings of indebtedness once and for all.

“Runnin Amok” – (Filipino) to become uncontrolably mad with rage; where someone (usually a man) just “snaps” after years of bottling up all frustration and anger (as is the Filipino way). I’ve never actually seen this, but have heard it’s pretty terrifying stuff.

“Boondocks” – (Filipino) adapted as the English colloquialism “boonies,” meaning a little town/village out in the middle of nowhere. Oft imitated, but never replaced.

Vosotros” plural form – (Spanish, South America mostly) A form of plural pronoun which indicates a familiar group, (“All you all, who are either friends or family.”) as opposed to nosotros (“All of us, including me.”) or Ustedes (Uds.) (“All you all, regardless of our relationship, if any.”).  I’ve never used it in context, but thought it was pretty cool when they finally taught it to us in college.

Ennui” – (French) An oppressive depression-like state, or a griping listlessness or melancholia caused by boredom, depending on who you ask.  Think of the exact opposite of “zest for life,” and that’s your ennui. 

Kaffee Klatsh” – (German, and I think the Dutch is similar) A small gathering of friends over coffee and pastries, where it is assumed that gossip will be the main item on the agenda.  Perhaps some niceties for small talk, but then down to business  (And, believe me, those old Dutch ladies can really let the fur fly!).


That’s about all I’ve got.  How about you?  Anything you remember from that high school language class you mostly slept through?

**And, let me first say, nobody’s interested in how well you can critique the exact translations of these words/phrases.  I’ve taken a great deal of license with these translations, all in the name of fun.  Please contribute to the list, but contribute constructively, and leave your one-upmanship to yourself.  Thanks.*