24 Words Worth Borrowing From Other Languages

Testing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

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A few decades ago, Harold Rheingold set out to find words and phrases that, he says, may help us "notice the cracks between our own worldview and those of others." According to Rheingold, "Finding a name for something is a way of conjuring its existence." It's a way of "making it possible for people to see a pattern where they didn't see anything before." He illustrates this thesis (a version of the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) in his book They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases (reprinted in 2000 by Sarabande Books). Drawing on more than 40 languages, Rheingold examined 150 "interesting untranslatable words" to borrow in order to help us "notice the cracks between our own worldview and those of others."

Here are 24 of Rheingold's imported words. Several of them (linked to entries in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary) have already begun migrating into English. Though it's unlikely that all these words will "add a new dimension to our lives," at least one or two should provoke a smile of recognition.

  1. attaccabottoni (Italian noun): a sad person who buttonholes people and tells long, pointless stories of misfortune (literally, "a person who attacks your buttons").
  2. berrieh (Yiddish noun): an extraordinarily energetic and talented woman.
  3. cavoli riscaldati (Italian noun): an attempt to revive an old relationship (literally, "reheated cabbage").
  4. épater le bourgeois (French verb phrase): to deliberately shock people who have conventional values.
  5. farpotshket (Yiddish adjective): slang for something that is all fouled up, especially as the result of an attempt to fix it.
  6. fisselig (German adjective): flustered to the point of incompetence as a result of another person's supervision or nagging.
  7. fucha (Polish verb): to use company time and resources for your own end.
  8. haragei (Japanese noun): visceral, indirect, largely nonverbal communication (literally, "belly performance").
  9. insaf (Indonesian adjective): socially and politically conscious.
  10. lagniappe (Louisiana French noun, from American Spanish): an extra or unexpected gift or benefit.
  11. lao (Chinese adjective): a respectful term of address for an older person.
  12. maya (Sanskrit noun): the mistaken belief that a symbol is the same as the reality it represents.
  13. mbuki-mvuki (Bantu verb): to shuck off clothes in order to dance.
  14. mokita (Kivila language of Papua New Guinea, noun): the truths of certain social situations that everybody knows but nobody talks about.
  15. ostranenie (Russian verb): make an audience see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance perception of the familiar.
  16. potlatch (Haida noun): the ceremonial act of gaining social respect by giving away wealth.
  17. sabsung (Thai verb): to slake an emotional or spiritual thirst; to be revitalized.
  18. schadenfreude (German noun): the pleasure that one feels as a result of someone else's misfortune.
  19. shibui (Japanese adjective): simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty.
  20. talanoa (Hindi noun): idle talk as a social adhesive. (See phatic communication.)
  21. tirare la carretta (Italian verb): to slog through dull and tedious everyday chores (literally, "to pull the little cart").
  22. tsuris (Yiddish noun): grief and trouble, especially the kind that only a son or daughter can give.
  23. uff da (Norwegian exclamation): expression of sympathy, annoyance, or mild disappointment.
  24. weltschmerz (German noun): a gloomy, romanticized, world-weary sadness (literally "world-grief").
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "24 Words Worth Borrowing From Other Languages." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/words-worth-borrowing-from-other-languages-1692632. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, October 29). 24 Words Worth Borrowing From Other Languages. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/words-worth-borrowing-from-other-languages-1692632 Nordquist, Richard. "24 Words Worth Borrowing From Other Languages." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/words-worth-borrowing-from-other-languages-1692632 (accessed March 26, 2023).