Foreign words that have no English equivalent: Great words we need

The English language can be wonderfully adaptable and expressive, but there are some concepts we just don't have a word for. And that's where borrowing from other languages can help…


The most well-known of these wonderful conceptualising foreign words is basically now a part of the English language too. Schadenfreude comes from the German words for harm (or damage) and joy. And as anyone who has laughed at someone getting their comeuppance will probably know, it means getting pleasure from someone's else's misfortune.


Swiftly catching up with schadenfreude in the ubiquity stakes is hygge, which Denmark has convincingly sold to the world. It means a quality of cosy conviviality that brings a feeling of contentment inside. So, that feeling you get when you have an early night with fresh bedsheets? Or a big roast dinner with people you love? Or watch your favourite film with a good glass of red? That's hygge.

The German word "Gemütlichkeit" has a very similar meaning.


This year's hygge is likely to be lagom, which comes from Sweden and means something close to "just right", with a touch of "in moderation" thrown in for good measure. So enough food to make you feel satiated, but not bloated, would be lagom. Or that Goldilocks-ish point where the porridge is not too hot, but not too cold – just expanded into a guiding principle to live by.


Ever said "Oh, I don't want to cause you any trouble"? Well, Thailand has a word for you… Loosely translated, greng-jai is the feeling of guilt or awkwardness that makes you want someone to not do something as it'll be a hassle for them. For example, if someone offers to give you a lift to the airport, but you take public transport instead because it'd mean them going out of their way, that's greng-jai.

In Thailand, it's something bigger than just wanting to be unobtrusive, though – and is heavily related to the concept of keeping face.


In Spanish, chispa can mean "spark" in relation to fire or electricity, but it is colloquially used to mean that stage of drunkenness when you're feeling at your best – a little bit merry, perhaps, full of life and happy, but well before the slurring, shambolic and sleepy stage kicks in. Think of it in terms of playing pool. That point after two or three beers when you're suddenly better than you were sober, but before your form starts going rapidly downhill due to drunkenness? That's the chispa state.


Very roughly, sprezzatura is the Italian art of appearing nonchalant and effortless, when a lot of time and consideration has gone into perfecting that look and vibe. So someone who spends ages on their hair to give it the just out of bed look would be displaying sprezzatura, as would someone who meticulously packs a case full of casual clothes designed to give an air of carefree cool.



The meaning of this Italian concept often depends on what side of it you fall. It embodies what some may regard as wily, clever and smart, but what others may see as sly and sneaky. So it can apply to anything from wangling your way to the front of a queue to getting away with rampant tax evasion and embezzlement. The term is rarely as a pure insult – at worst, there's always some grudging respect for the person getting away with dubious behaviour.


The initial assumption is that the Afrikaans word padkos means something similar to packed lunch, but it encompasses more than that. It's basically any food you take to be eaten on a journey, whether the muesli bars a hiker might slip into his rucksack, or hat packet of sweeties you pack into your flight bag in case the mid-air munchies strike.


The closest English equivalent to the Hindi word jugaad is "hack" – and it basically means finding an innovative workaround solution with very limited resources. So that might mean using dental floss as a temporary repair to a ripped mesh pocket, or wangling a paper clip to be an impromptu zip fastener. It has gone beyond Macgyer-esque ingenuity in India, however, where it is now a management-speak philosophy for gaining a competitive edge through improvisational, on-the-cheap thinking.


In Slovenian, vedriti means to take shelter from the rain, waiting for it to stop so you can go on your way again. It's a concept that should be familiar to any traveller who has leapt under a shop awning the moment the skies have opened. But vedriti is also used in a metaphorical sense – ducking out of a bad situation for respite until things start to improve.


If you suggest climbing a mountain in your thongs in the middle of night to a German friend, they might reasonably question whether it's a shnapsidee. Literally translating as "booze idea", the word is used to describe ideas and plans that are so ludicrous that they must have been conceived while drunk.

See also: How to be a better traveller

See also: Ten things travellers get wrong

Listen: Flight of Fancy - the podcast with Ben Groundwater

To subscribe to the podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.