From gigil to shinrin-yoku and tarab, there are many foreign emotion words with no equivalent in the English language. Learning to identify and cultivate these experiences could give you a richer and more successful life.
Have you ever felt a little mbuki-mvuki – the irresistible urge to “shuck off your clothes as you dance?” Perhaps a little kilig – the jittery fluttering feeling as you talk to someone you fancy? How about uitwaaien – which encapsulates the revitalising effects of taking a walk in the wind?
These words – taken from Bantu, Tagalog, and Dutch – have no direct English equivalent, but they represent very precise emotional experiences that are neglected in our language. And if Tim Lomas at the University of East London has his way, they might soon become much more familiar.
Lomas’s Positive Lexicography Project aims to capture the many flavours of good feelings (some of which are distinctly bittersweet) found across the world, in the hope that we might start to incorporate them all into our daily lives. We have already borrowed many emotion words from other languages, after all – think “frisson”, from French, or “schadenfreude”, from German – but there are many more that have not yet wormed their way into our vocabulary. Lomas has found hundreds of these “untranslatable” experiences so far – and he’s only just begun.
Learning these words, he hopes, will offer us all a richer and more nuanced understanding of ourselves. “They offer a very different way of seeing the world.”
Lomas says he was first inspired after hearing a talk on the Finnish concept of sisu, which is a sort of “extraordinary determination in the face of adversity”. According to Finnish speakers, the English ideas of “grit”, “perseverance” or “resilience” do not come close to describing the inner strength encapsulated in their native term. It was “untranslatable” in the sense that there was no direct or easy equivalent encoded within the English vocabulary that could capture that deep resonance.
Intrigued, he began to hunt for further examples, scouring the academic literature and asking every foreign acquaintance for their own suggestions. The first results of this project were published in the Journal of Positive Psychology last year.
Many of the terms referred to highly specific positive feelings, which often depend on very particular circumstances:
Desbundar (Portuguese) – to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun
Tarab (Arabic) – a musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment
Shinrin-yoku (Japanese) – the relaxation gained from bathing in the forest, figuratively or literally
Gigil (Tagalog) – the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished
Yuan bei (Chinese) – a sense of complete and perfect accomplishment
Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived
But others represented more complex and bittersweet experiences, which could be crucial to our growth and overall flourishing.
Natsukashii (Japanese) – a nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer
Wabi-sabi (Japanese) – a “dark, desolate sublimity” centred on transience and imperfection in beauty
Saudade (Portuguese) – a melancholic longing or nostalgia for a person, place or thing that is far away either spatially or in time – a vague, dreaming wistfulness for phenomena that may not even exist
Sehnsucht (German) – literally “life-longings”, an intense desire for alternative states and realisations of life, even if they are unattainable
In addition to these emotions, Lomas’s lexicography also charted the personal characteristics and behaviours that might determine our long-term well-being and the ways we interact with other people.
Dadirri (Australian aboriginal) term – a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening
Pihentagyú (Hungarian) – literally meaning “with a relaxed brain”, it describes quick-witted people who can come up with sophisticated jokes or solutions
Desenrascanço (Portuguese) – to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation
Sukha (Sanskrit) – genuine lasting happiness independent of circumstances
Orenda (Huron) – the power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces such as fate
You can view many more examples on his website, where there is also the opportunity to submit your own. Lomas readily admits that many of the descriptions he has offered so far are only an approximation of the term’s true meaning. “The whole project is a work in progress, and I’m continually aiming to refine the definitions of the words in the list,” he says. “I definitely welcome people’s feedback and suggestions in that regard.”