Did you know that there’s a word for the feeling of bliss and oneness with the universe that comes from enjoying the simplest of pleasures? In Serbian, you can sum up that complex concept with the simple “merak.”
It’s also hard not to be charmed by “tretår,” which means a second refill of coffee — “threefill” — in Swedish. And we’ve all experienced “sobremesa,” which is Spanish for sitting around the table with friends or family after a meal together.
Most languages have at least one word that, while not directly translatable in our mother tongue, describes a particular phenomenon that is deeply, satisfyingly, almost achingly relatable. In fact, I’m sure some language has a word that neatly summarizes the pleasure of discovering untranslatable words.
These words spark a special recognition, shining a light on shared experiences while highlighting cultural differences.
Years ago, in college, I fell in love with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that our native language actually shapes our worldview.
My class learned about the Australian aboriginal tribe that uses cardinal directions in nearly every sentence and thus has an insanely accurate inner compass. We considered languages that name hundreds of colors and languages that name three. We wondered if native speakers of romance languages unconsciously think of bridges — which have a masculine pronoun — as stronger and sturdier, while native speakers of germanic languages — using the feminine pronoun — think of the structures as more delicate and beautiful.
Today, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is largely challenged. Just because the Japanese language doesn’t have a future tense doesn’t mean that Japanese people don’t understand the concept of the future; just because English doesn’t have 1,000 words for snow, as Eskimo-Aluit languages supposedly do, doesn’t mean that we don’t see the different varieties of the freezing stuff.
And yet, the linguistic romantic in me believes that if we did have a word in between sleet and slush, our wintery experience would be that much richer.
So, to stave off the winter darkness, I am finding light in untranslatable words.
You have to be careful while treading this path, though. Some words, while deliciously apt, define more negative phenomena, such as the German “schadenfreude” (pleasure derived from another’s misfortune) or “kummerspeck” (the weight gained from emotional eating, or, literally, “grief bacon”).
Instead, I am incorporating these five words into my daily vocab:
1. Hygge (pronounced “hoo-guh”) is a Danish word defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” Hygge had a big moment a few years ago — in fact, it was on the short list for the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 “word of the year.”
How to find hygge: Snow is swirling outside your frost-covered window as you sit on your couch, snuggled in a cozy blanket, reading a good book with a steaming mug of cocoa.
2. Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese word for a familiar phenomenon to Wyomingites: “forest bathing.” In Japan, doctors actually prescribe walking through the forest as preventative health care and healing therapy.
How to experience shinrin-yoku: Drive up to the Bighorn Mountains with your cross-country skis, snowshoes or hiking boots in the backseat. Step outside. Explore the trails. Look at the trees. Feel the healing.
3. Tsundoku is another Japanese word that describes the act of buying a book and leaving it unread, often piled together with other unread books.
How to perceive tsundoku: Nothing is more comforting than knowing you have weeks of good reading ahead of you.
4. Aperitivo is an Italian ritual of enjoying pre-dinner food and drink with friends or family to prepare you socially — and digestively — for the big meal ahead. Think: happy hour 2.0.
How to aperitivo: Add a festive twist to your winter evenings by sharing sparkling drinks and small plates before dinner. (And — shameless plug — come to my Venetian-themed aperitivo class at Verdello on Feb. 26!)
5. Saudade is the Portuguese word for the feeling of longing for something, someone or someplace that you love but can never experience again. My Brazilian roommate spent weeks trying to explain the word’s nuance, which goes way beyond nostalgia.
How to target your inevitable winter saudade: Will summer ever return to Sheridan?
…It will! And in the meantime, these words are helping me redefine my winter.
When summer does return, I will probably feel saudade when I remember winter mornings filled with shinrin-yoku around the Sibley Lake Nordic Trails, followed by hygge afternoons surrounded by tsundoku in my reading nook, all punctuated with an evening aperitivo among friends.
Want to share an untranslatable word? Shoot it over to firstname.lastname@example.org.