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Expanding our emotional lexicon: the heartwarming foreign words that have no direct English translation


If you often find yourself racking your brain for a word that describes your exact emotion – but simply doesn’t exist - then you’re not alone.

How can you describe that feeling you get when a hug makes you feel protected and safe? Or when you wake up feeling like you could conquer the world after a good night’s sleep? Or loving someone so much you would rather die first than ever be without them?

Well, it turns out that us Brits are really lacking when it comes to our language – despite Old Bill having, himself, made so much of it, back in the 16th Century.

Dr Tim Lomas, a psychologist at the University of East London, has been investigating how positive emotions are expressed in other languages.

He found that the Hawaiian word ‘aloha’, commonly used incorrectly in the West to mean hello and goodbye, literally translates as ‘the breath of presence.’

If you feel ‘commuovere’ (Italian), you’ve been moved by a particular story, and if you feel ‘pirgun’ (Hebrew), you are feeling a deep pride and happiness at someone else’s success.


Ya’burnee (يقبرني) (Arabic, phrase): lit. ‘you bury me,’ i.e., one would rather die (first) than lose the other.

In Iceland, there’s even a special word – ‘sólarfrí’ – to describe an unexpected period of time-off granted to employees to enjoy a particularly sunny day.

All of the words discovered by Lomas are used only in positive circumstances, and their meanings are all immediately recognisable.

Lomas published his findings of 216 words in the Journal of Positive Psychology and divided them between three categories: feelings, relationships and characters.

He says that the paper has “two main aims. First, it aims to provide a window onto cultural differences in construction of well-being, thereby enriching our understanding of wellbeing.

“Second, a more ambitious aim is that this lexicon may help expand the emotional vocabulary of English speakers – and indeed speakers of all languages – and consequently enrich their experiences of well-being.”

Lomas stresses that the list is still a work in progress and is continually growing.

Take a look at just some of the wonderful words he's unearthed, below. 


Mamihlapinatapei (Yagán, n.): a look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire.

Commuovere (Italian, v.): to be moved, touched or affected (e.g., by a story).

Dor (Romanian, n.): longing for a person, place, or thing that is out of reach and you love very much.

F/pirgun (פירגון) (Hebrew, n.): ungrudging and overt (expressed) pride and happiness at other's successes.

Geborgenheit (German, n.): feeling protected and safe from harm.

Mamihlapinatapei (Yagán, n.): a look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire.

Mерак (Serbian, n.): pleasure derived from simple joys.

Morgenfrisk (Danish, adj.): feeling rested after a good night's sleep.

Nakama (仲間)  (Japanese, n.): best friend, close buddy, one for whom one feels deep platonic love.

Nakakahinayang (Tagalog, n.): a feeling of regret for not having used something or taken advantage of a situation.

Onsra (Boro, v.): 'to love for the last time,’ the feeling that love won’t last.

Querencia (Spanish, n.): a place where one feels secure, from which one draws strength.

Retrouvailles (French, n.): lit. 'rediscovery'; a reunion (e.g., with loved ones after a long time apart).

Sprezzatura (Italian): nonchalance, art and effort are concealed beneath a studied carelessness.

Shemomechama (შემომეჭამა) (Georgian, v.): eating past the point of satiety due to sheer enjoyment.

Tyvsmake (Norwegian, v.): to taste or eat small pieces of the food when you think nobody is watching, especially when cooking.

Utepils (Norwegian, n.): a beer that is enjoyed outside (particularly on the first hot day of the year). 

Vorfreude (German, n.): intense, joyful anticipation derived from imagining future pleasures.

Ya’burnee (يقبرني) (Arabic, phrase): lit. ‘you bury me,’ i.e., one would rather die (first) than lose the other.

You can see the full list here.

Images: iStock



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