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.

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

  • 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 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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!

  • Roberta B.

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


    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.” 🙂

  • 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:

    Further comment from me would be superfluous.

    *And, indeed, in Liff.

  • Kim Larsen

    Thought I would add another one:

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

  • 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

  • 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? 😉

  • 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.

  • 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?

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