There’s a Word for That

By Mark Nichol

Why is that despite the fact that the English language has hundreds of thousands of words, we have no single-word term for many emotions and other concepts that are specifically represented in other languages and that would be beneficial for everyday use?

For example, English has no word equivalent to gianxi, a Chinese term akin to but not the same as goodwill. (It refers to the social stock one accumulates by doing favors and bestowing gifts.) Nor is there any succinct translation of forelsket, the Norwegian word for the ecstasy of love in its early stages. (A concise definition is “the state of being enamored,” but even if enamoration were a word — and why isn’t it? — it doesn’t incorporate the context. Infatuation comes close but is not quite equivalent.)

My conclusion, after a bit of research, is that English speakers just aren’t trying hard enough. It’s true that the parent language of English, Anglo-Saxon, lets us down in matching single words to concepts, but English is very receptive to new vocabulary. (One comment attributed to a dictionary, though I couldn’t identify the specific source, is that “English acquires new words with the delicacy of a vacuum cleaner.”)

It is this adaptability that we must, for the most part, rely on. (I write “for the most part” because formation of new words is effortless: See enamoration above.) All we have to do is “borrow” from other languages. (I enclose borrow in raised eyebrows of irony because steal would be more accurate; we don’t give the words back.)

Turn to any page of a dictionary, and you’ll find at least one word acquired from a foreign language: Souvenir, from French. Contort, from Latin. Gymnast, from Greek. More recent acquisitions abound as well: Honcho, from Japanese. Cafeteria, from Spanish. Trek, from Afrikaans.

But our loanword word-hoard is woefully incomplete. From German, we have schadenfreude, referring to the enjoyment of other’s misfortunes. But why hasn’t English appropriated pena ajena, an expression from Mexican Spanish that denotes embarrassment about another person’s humiliation? That would certainly come in handy.

The answer to my thesis question is this: There’s a word for almost everything, but it isn’t necessarily in the English lexicon — yet. English is constantly enriched by the accumulation and integration of vocabulary from other languages, but the only reason you wouldn’t say to me, expecting others to understand, “You’re such a pochemuchka” — that Russian word means “a person who asks too many questions” — is because we haven’t (yet) decided that the word’s useful enough to assimilate. Start introducing more foreign words into your writing, and you’ll build gianxi with me.

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43 Responses to “There’s a Word for That”

  • Tan Yan Xi

    It’s “Guan xi”, not “gianxi”

  • Qin Zhi Lau

    You mean “guanxi”, not “gianxi”, which is not actually a word.

  • Ondřej Vágner

    No word for gianxi? What about whuffie?

  • Beck

    I speak both English and Spanish, and often find that there are Spanish words which I feel are “better” than the equivalent English phrase.

  • Gerda

    I just learned a new word for all those nosy people. They’re all a bunch of “pochemuschkas”. It rolls off the tongue so nicely.

  • Andrea W

    I believe you mean _guanxi_ and not _gianxi_.

  • Maeve

    I love pena ajena! Perhaps it says something about our cultural mindset that we would adopt schadenfreude, but not pena ajena. A lovely expression. Thanks for introducing me to it.

  • Wency

    @Mark
    As a Chinese, I am confused when I see the term “gianxi”, I guess you mean “guanxi”?

    Apart from the word issue, the way we say things are different. For some expressions, we use all the time in Chinese, but never come across anything similar in English. Even if we manage to translate an expression “correctly”, it may still cause confusion.

  • Conrad Sigona

    Languages use words that are useful to them. Indeed the words of a language grant insight into the lives and character of the native speakers of that language. When a word is needed it is either created (technical jargon, for example) or imported; however, concepts which are difficult to identify with are unlikely to end up as imported words. Chinese clearly have good use for gianxi, but the concept, while comprehensible to us, is not one that’s easy to relate to in an English-speaking culture. You’ve surely heard how Eskimo have lots of words for snow, each quite specific to the type of snow; we don’t need them and so we don’t have them. It’s unfortunate that we can better relate to Schadenfreude than to pena ajena, but simply trying harder will neither help to introduce the term nor to improve our character. By the time we really need the word in English, it will have already appeared.

  • AinOakPark

    Well, I’d say, socially different cultures would not use some of the same words. I don’t think our culture values “the social stock one accumulates by doing favors and bestowing gifts,” since this is commonly called “brown-nosing” or “kissing ass”.

    You can thank Disney for “twitterpated” even though you may not think it mature enough for your use.

    And, as opposed to “borrowing” words, or “stealing” them, we could just incorporate them, which just seems so much more benign.

    The trouble you are really encountering seems to be that the average person is not multilingual. Many of these foreign words are added because we are the melting pot of the world. How lucky we are to be able to choose the words we add to our vocabulary! Why damn us for not knowing and then choosing the most exact word for something from every language in the world? How many people speak Norwegian? I am one quarter Norwegian and I am not familiar with forelsket. I live in California, but I am not fluent in Spanish. I am even less familiar with Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Africaans. Latin and Greek are languages so old we are often not aware that some words we use are derived from those languages.

    Don’t get me started on “enamoration” when this blog has covered the subject of non-words and has implied the stupidity of people who use them.

    I do, however, read this blog to improve myself, and am thankful for it.

    Your tone here, I am sorry to say, is a bit highfalutin.

  • Maria

    I think the reason “pena ajena” will never be adopted is it isn’t used in all Spanish speaking countries. I’ve lived in Argentina and Uruguay; we say “vergüenza ajena”. Don’t get me wrong, we understand “pena ajena,” but it’s not part of our language.

  • David

    You said, “Nor is there any succinct translation of forelsket, the Norwegian word for the ecstasy of love in its early stages.” I must take issue with that. What about the word “limerence” for “forelsket?”

  • Yassin Madwin

    There is a word in Arabic that has no translation to any language so whatever and it’s HAMD . derived words include ( Ahmad, mohammad, hamdan) it means being thankful for no reason ( merci, danke…..) all these translations means being thankful for something in return.

    P.S Hamd is a word that is only associated with the Lord.

    However, Every Language has its pros and cons. i love English being an easy language to learn

  • Bill

    I usually agree with your posts, but not this time. I’d go with Strunk and White: Avoid foreign languages.
    To quote: “The writer will occasionally find it convenient or necessary to borrow from other languages. Some writers, however, from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader’s comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.”
    One good reason not to use foreign word and phrases is that English is a spoken language and people may not have the confidence to pronounce them. There’s a very funny exchange between Alec Baldwin and Jerry Seinfeld in the free web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” that illustrates this. Baldwin refers to Seinfeld’s “rapier-like wit.” You can guess where the bit goes, but it’s worth watching anyway.

  • thebluebird11

    I love the idea of new words, of course, and certainly if we don’t have quite the right word in current English, by all means import something from another language if it fits the bill. I say import, not steal LOL. In my milieu, we have imported words from Yiddish because there is really no English equivalent. I am happy to import words from all over the globe, and beyond if available. The only thing I would say is that since you didn’t provide transliteration for proper pronunciation, I wouldn’t use these words and embarrass myself until I knew proper pronunciation. OTOH, I could just sort of fumf along and do my best, or maybe not my best, and make something up that sounds “about right,” like “pennajenna” (for pena ajena), or looks “about right,” like “ganchee” (for gianxi).
    And personally, I like enamoration better than forel..whatever that word is.

  • Lynn Schneider

    I love this post. It is a subject which interests me greatly. I recently did a post on the Japanese word “shibui” which is the concept that objects (and people) acquire beauty as they age, a patina, a completeness. The difference between an English cheese aged two years and Cheez-Wiz. This is of course an exaggeration, but the general concept reveals itself. Why don’t we have a word like that? I can’t think of one.

  • Troddey

    I think those born in the United States of America are less apt to ‘borrow’ words from other languages because….well, we are Americans…. I think we would rather invent our own. ;P

  • Paul

    I would tend to say you haven’t searched the 20 volume OED. My experience with that work seemed to have a word, sometimes difficult to pronounce, for every kind of emotion, activity, and thought, such as telling someone in one word, “they are a piece of crud.” [I’ve forgotten the word and don’t have access any longer to the twenty volumes, but it started with “m”.

  • Jen Xi

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article. There are some cases where there are no suitable substitutes. Using an English word that is close to the original meaning of the word is not good enough because the it does not convey fully what the writer is trying to say.

    Other examples I would contribute would be Japanese terms like samurai and katana. These have become mainstream from widespread usage. How would you substitute these with English terms? A Japanese knight? A Japanese sword? Or to be more specific, a Japanese single-edged, curved-bladed sword? The previous phrase cannot convey as eloquently as simply using katana.

    As for the pronunciation, in my opinion, phrases that sound right should only be used in speech to guide the reader. Other instances should use the proper spelling. I always remember how the famous droids in Star Wars were referred to in the novel. R2-D2 and C-3PO were referred to as such, except in speech where the author used Artoo and Threepio to guide.

    By the way, I think the author meant “guanxi” instead of “gianxi”.

  • Deidre

    It’s a shame that American English is so inadequate that it has to borrow from other languages. Even worse is that American society is penalizing unique people for expressing themselves properly and having a great vocabulary that few others understand.

    Non-words should be considered. I mean words like ‘enamorated’, not words like ‘thingy’.

  • Pete

    Let’s use imported words from other languages that better fit what we wanted to express. However, make sure that you know the proper pronunciation before you use it in verbal or oral form. So spell it phonetically to get the close pronunciation as much as possible before using it in written and verbal form. If you cannot say it correctly or know how to pronounce it, better not use the imported word to save you from embarrassment.

  • Nelida K.

    @Mark and @Maeve: This is to comment about “pena ajena”. My authority to comment on this is that I am a certified translator of English, native in Spanish, Latin American, River Plate variety.

    “Pena ajena” in my part of the woods, doesn’t cut it. Here experiencing “pena” is feeling sorry for someone (in addition to other meanings when used in certain expressions). As used in “pena ajena”, it is strictly Caribbean, Mexican and Central American Spanish (see DRAE – Diccionario de la Real Academia Española) where it is used with the meaning of shame, or embarrassment if you will. Therefore, strictly regional.

    Here, (Southern Cone and other parts of South America, and maybe also in Spain) we say instead “vergüenza ajena” (i.e. you feel embarrassed for somebody else’s acts or behavior). (Not to be confused, of course, with schadenfreude). Maybe it was not adopted because it’s two words and not easy to pronounce for an English native speaker. Just guessing.

    Another word that has no exact equivalent, and this is from Portuguese, is “saudade” (nostalgia compounded with longing, yearning, a wish-I-was-there, or wish-you-were-here kind of feeling).

  • Tricia

    “Nor is there any succinct translation of forelsket, the Norwegian word for the ecstasy of love in its early stages. (A concise definition is “the state of being enamored,” but even if enamoration were a word — and why isn’t it? — it doesn’t incorporate the context. Infatuation comes close but is not quite equivalent.)”

    There is a word, or really, an acronym: NRE = new relationship energy. When you’re all caught up in each other and forget to think about anything or anyone else. Where you forgo meals and sleep just to be with the person. Lasts 3-4 month if you’re lucky 🙂 Longer if you’re really lucky.

  • thebluebird11

    @Nelida: My question is, exactly what are these phrases (pena ajena, verguenza ajena, and so forth) trying to convey? Is it (1) personal embarrassment by another person’s actions, whether or not the other person is embarrassed; (2) embarrassment by the other person’s ACTIONS, when the other person is embarrassed by his/her actions; (3) sympathetic/empathetic/shared embarrassment for the other person’s EMBARRASSMENT?
    To give examples:
    (1) You go out to a bar with a friend, who gets disgustingly drunk, strips to half naked and starts dancing on a table. He doesn’t realize any of this (so he’s not embarrassed, at least not yet), but YOU are.
    (2) You went out to a bar last night with a friend, who got disgustingly drunk and was dancing half-naked on the table. Now, the next day, he realizes how drunk he was. You are both embarrassed by his actions (that he got disgustingly drunk and danced half-naked on the table).
    (3) Your friend went out to a bar last night with some friends (not you), got disgustingly drunk, danced half-naked on the table, and now, the next day, he finds out about what happened and is embarrassed. He tells you the whole sordid story, and you are embarrassed for him, not only for his actions, but also for the pain of his embarrassment.

    Am I splitting hairs here?

  • onbutnotof

    “You’re such a pochemuchka” – how do you pronounce that? I have small children and will happily introduce this word to them!

  • Rich Wheeler

    I have rules I follow about using foreign words:

    1. Make a good-faith effort to ensure English doesn’t already have a “right” word.

    2. Since so many English words derive from Greek or Latin, I look there for some combination of root words that would convey the desired meaning. That way, I maximize the number of people who can decipher my coined word. (Of course, if you’re writing for a Spanish-speaking audience, Spanish is a better source.)

    3. Think about how convenient it is for your audience to look up that foreign expression. If you use a ____-to-English dictionary, will it give the connotation you intended?

    4. Make sure that flaunting your knowledge of esoteric Absurdistani idioms isn’t pretension. “Educated” does not mean “educated in French and German,” as it did two centuries ago.

    5. Make sure your search for the right word is not avoidance of spelling out your meaning. You may miss the opportunity to write some lovely metaphor that beautifies your prose.

    As always, consider your purpose and your audience.

  • Stephen Thorn

    While I agree with your premise that some words simply haven’t been found to be useful enough to incorporate them into English, I think there’s more to it than that. Words that are klunky in the mouth due to their pronounciation or perceived similarity (in sound, probably) to words that have a negative connotation will be less likely to be absorbed into common usage. People don’t like to wear uncomfortable shoes, nor do we easily adopt words that aren’t comfortable in the mouth. Aside from a few ‘suede patches on the elbows’ types and people who write magazine articles who uses schaedenfreude in their day-to-day dialogs? Not so many people, probably because the word doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue of the average American.

  • Benny Rietveld

    Lovely article, thank you! Will definitely start seeding the soil.

  • HKFROMHK

    Regarding today’s article – There’s a Word for That: … “English has no word equivalent to gianxi, a Chinese term akin to but not the same as goodwill.”

    It is Guanxi, not gianxi. The word in Chinese means very close to , if not exactly, “connections” in English. As far as I am concern, English does have a equivalent word.

    I disagree with your comment that English speaker are not trying hard enough to have precise words for that. In Chinese, most words are combination of words that is like English compound noun, e.g. A “Vertical Ascending Machine” is a helicopter. Imagine how much easier it is to learn a language if most everything are compound nouns like “Schoolboy” that you immediately know if you know the components. In English, however, someone has to invent a word like “lint” that is so precise, and yet so unnecessary.

  • thebluebird11

    @RichWheeler: Absurdistani! Bwahaha, love it! While I see the logic in your rules, I am still uncomfortable with the first one. I don’t see why we should avoid using a foreign term just because we have an equivalent English one. That is almost like saying to an Eskimo, “You don’t need 20 different words for ‘snow.’ One is good enough. After all, snow is snow.” You can’t have too many words! And who knows, some day the meaning of a word may change a bit (like “gay”), so the word will part ways and go off to mean something else.
    @StephenThorn etc: Yeah, schadenfreude is a mouthful and then some (even for someone with a big mouth like me LOL). Why isn’t sadism a good enough word? And forelsket…I have to scroll up every time I want to mention that word because I keep wanting to say “forskelt,” which somehow comes off my tongue more easily because I’m familiar with German/Yiddish. Even so, it doesn’t sound like what it means. It reminds me of all the Yiddish words for “crazy” (farklempt, farmished, fartummult, farblunjit, etc).

  • Graeme Creed

    On the other hand english has incorporated so many words we end up with duplicates. Why do we use both sick and ill?

  • Jane Lael

    The correct pinyin (English transliteration of the sound of spoken Chinese characters) for “gianxi” in the post above is “guanxi”. It’s so pervasive a term in daily use in China that there truly is no English equivalent.

  • thebluebird11

    @everybody who says it is “guanxi”: OK, so…how do you pronounce it?! gwon-chee? gwoo-ahn-zee? wong-tzee? Help me out here! I am such a pochemuchka!
    The other question being that of nuance; is guanxi perceived as something people do for keeping good relations with people they love and care about, or do they do it for bribing, brown-nosing and to get favors in return? I can’t say I will ever have a use for this word, but one never knows.
    @HKFROMHK: The word “lint” is unnecessary? Without that word, what would you call that stuff inside your bellybutton? 😉

  • Kim Larsen

    Thank you for your wonderful posts and newsletters! Each newsletter is like a surprise I cannot wait to open after reading the caption heading. I am no writer or author. I just love language!

    One minor thing in this post was guanxi. It is spellt “guanxi” instead of with the “i”. Connections and networks that are the currency in political, business, social circles.

    Looking forward to more posts!

    With best regards,
    Kim Larsen

  • Kim Larsen

    Thought I would add another one:

    “Hygge” in Danish describes everything from cozy, time spent with friends, family, in any imaginable setting.

  • Martyn Wilson

    As the late, great Douglas Adams wrote in his peerless work The Meaning of Liff, ” (written with John Lloyd):

    “In Life*, there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist.

    On the other hand, the world is littererd with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.

    Our job, as we see it, is to get these words dow off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.”

    Buy the book on Amazon or read a transcript here: http://folk.uio.no/alied/TMoL.html.

    Further comment from me would be superfluous.

    *And, indeed, in Liff.

  • HKFROMHK

    Hi, thebluebird11: Guanxi = 关系 = Guan Xi. Guan rhymes with the “Guam” as in “United States island territory of Guam.” Xi sounds like si, except it is softer. An example of usage is “China is a guanxi society.” It means that Chinese usually get things done by having and using connections.” Hope this helps.

    Hmm, I would have called lint “that-stuff-inside-my-bellybutton.” 🙂

  • Roberta B.

    @Nelida K. – What’s the “River Plate variety” of the Spanish language?

  • Twittel

    I love this idea! But I’m a word lover anyway! Those folks who say you should stick to English are missing opportunities to color their text with shades of deeper meaning. Lewis Carroll wrote a clever poem with complete nonsense words, but everyone loves the Jabberwocky! I’d think you’d have to be smart about how you use foreign words, and maybe even define them in your text, but don’t surrender to the tried and true ALL the time!
    Thanks for the new words in my vocabulary!

  • Nelida K.

    @thebluebird11: “vergüenza ajena”: Number 1, most definitely. As, when I see a very badly translated piece, I feel “vergüenza ajena” for the translator (who doesn’t even know I exist). I am ashamed, embarrassed on his/her account.

    @Roberta B.: The dialectal variety of Spanish spoken in Uruguay and Argentina, the two countries on each side of the River Plate. There are differences between the two, although Montevideo and Buenos Aires are only 30 mins. flight-time apart from each other, but I don’t want to go into that because it would be really splitting hairs 🙂 ! An example: the slang, colloquial expression “fiaca” means “hunger” in Montevideo, and “ennui” or “boredom” in Buenos Aires…

  • Rob H.

    I saw a state document today with the word “Learnerhood” used this way: “We believe that ending disparities and gaps in achievement begin in the delivery of quality Early Learnerhood programs and appropriate parent engagement and support….

    I see what the writer means, but wouldn’t “Early Learner programs” work just as well? “Learnerhood” sounds way too unnecessary.

  • Larry V.

    In the recent post on loanwords, there is the statement “But our loanword word-hoard is woefully incomplete. From German, we have schadenfreude, referring to the enjoyment of other’s misfortunes.” There is a perfectly good English language word that means exactly the same thing: epicaricacy.

  • Rikke

    “(I enclose borrow in raised eyebrows of irony because steal would be more accurate; we don’t give the words back.)”

    Not true! Or rather, perhaps not the exact same words, but trust me, English gives back plenty.

    I’m a Danish speaker, and there’s a lot of complaining in Denmark about how many English words sneak into Danish. I currently live in Italy, and the same goes for Italian. In business, advertising, slang used by youngsters, if there’s an English word for it, it will be used.

    Language is not static, and apparently foreign words taste better. Some become fashion. The same holds true of English. In fact studying English etymology, you might be surprised how may words were foreign, even if they are not so anymore.

    By the way, forelsket (in Danish as well as Norwegian) is perfectly translatable into being in love. It’s derived from German “verliebt” (“elske” is love).

    @HKFROMHK: I have to admit that I love the word “lint”, for which there is no immediate translation into Danish. However useless it may be 🙂

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