Having always enjoyed learning languages, I revel in the difference between one language and another. Amongst my musings, I conjure up reasons to explain a language’s structure or vocabulary. Herewith are some of my favorite, if frivolous, observations about a few of the languages I know.

In French, there is frileux, a word that means “sensitive to cold”( or “overcautious” in a more abstract sense). No such single word exists in English to describe being afraid of the cold. This word encompasses why the French find that air conditioning is not appreciated, and probably the reason #1 given for the common cold in the summer [in France]. Meanwhile, you can find equivalent words for frileux in all the Mediterranean languages (frigoloso…)

In French, the word “efficient” doesn’t exist. It’s generally defined as the word “efficace” which really only means “effective” and obscures the notion of productivity & timing in “efficient.”

In French, the adjective “fin” (not la fin, as in the end) is very hard to describe in English as it applies to a person. “The person is fine” doesn’t really cut it. “Il est fin” means the person has a refined sense (i.e. in wit and/or aesthetics) combined with a degree of subtlety.

Of course, there are many thousands of examples of words borrowed from one language into another, which doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t an equivalent. But, somehow, etymologically speaking, it does reveal a prowess or at least an exotic preference for the language from which the word is borrowed. Looking at French words in English (some 10,000 words were adopted back in the Norman invasion), there are many words that come to mind. What is more delectable, is the reason why:

  • avant-garde (thinking if not being ahead of its time)
  • bon appétit (and many other food-related sayings)
  • c’est la vie (beautifully reverse translated in French as “that’s life” in certain French subtitles)
  • décolleté (and numerous other arousing descriptions… ménage à trois, lingerie, etc.)
  • double entendre (and other diplomatic nuances, such as sang froid)

In French, it’s generally not considered as positive when English (or foreign) words creep into the language (the Académie Française is always on the watch). But there are certainly plenty of English words that have been accepted into the French vocabulary, i.e. weekend, ok, etc. Sometimes, the English word provides a certain je ne sais quoi to the sentence. At other times, English is almost used like a trump card. Subject to much acrimonious debate and some periods of protectionism, the rate at which English words have been flowing into the French language has by all statistics accelerated over the last fifty years.* I list a few favourite examples of words that are used in every day French language:

  • c’est très “safe” – a blend of “securité” and “innocuous”
  • le self – as if it were demeaning to have self service?
  • airbus is a cute one
  • chewing gum is an embarrassment
  • sexy – used to be considered a little pejorative, but has come around, even in French
  • le go-between – what they mean by English diplomacy
  • bulldozer – a hint at American diplomacy

There are even examples of words that do an aller-retour. One that is particularly fun is the word “challenge” which was borrowed originally by the English from the French (‘chalenge’), only now to be considered an English word when used in French (typically compared with “enjeux“).

Moving into a few other languages, I choose the word Gemütlicht, in German which, translated roughly as “cozy, relaxed”, has oddly been co-opted into the English language rather than translated — but, again, it’s true that just because the word has been added to the language, doesn’t mean the concept didn’t exist before. Just an opening up of the vocabulary.

Another German word, realpolitik, speaks volumes of the Anglo-Saxon heritage of pragmatism. Of course, if it were a politique of ideas, that would surely have a French origin.

In Russian, I remember a time when it was said (until Yeltsin’s era) that the word “unemployment” didn’t exist. That is no longer the case. For now, meanwhile, there’s still no singular word for “wholesale.” And the word “chat” has become current currency in Russian. And, courtesy of a research paper on line, I was entranced by the fact that “education” doesn’t have a singular translation. Russian splits the word into three separate meanings: (1) Образование (Education System, formal term for education, as in State Education system); (2) Обyчение (teaching, learning as in the practical activity of education at school); and (3) Воспитание (education of somebody, fusing the notions of personal education & upbringing).

A little tour to stir the juices. One thing’s for sure. As the world connects (and merges) on line, the chances are that the English language has a great shot at owning the ‘net language (blog, podcast, twittering…) aided by a continuing line of inventions. However, maybe all the terms already exist in Chinese and I’m just shamelessly unaware. Welcome any other examples of untranslatable or untranslated words that come to mind and might stir a smile, once exposed.


*A study showed that 14% of the Englishicisms in French came before 1800, 22% between 1800-1850, 9% between 1850-1900, 22% between 1900-1950 and 32% since 1950.

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