14 Untranslatable Words About Love

Seeing as it’s Valentine’s Day, I though I’d dedicate a post to Cupid and his well-aimed (well…sometimes) arrows. Before I moved to Japan, I confess that my opinion of Valentine’s Day had flat-lined at “meh”…now, though, it just means that my desk disappears under a mountain of homemade chocolates, cookies, and other deliciously unhealthy sweets from my students. It’s a pretty good development all around.

I’ve written about how much I love untranslatable words in the past; the fact that a feeling is familiar to people across cultures and continents and yet is only expressed in a certain language is fascinating to me. On Valentine’s Day, emotions run a headier, more dramatic spectrum than most other days of the year, and there are plenty of foreign language words to describe all of those feelings. Here are fourteen of my favorite untranslatable words that have to do with love in some way or another. Some are about the euphoria of falling of love, some are about the depths of heartbreak, but most are feelings that, I’m willing to bet, we’ve felt at one time or another.

1.)   Forelsket (Norwegian) – Let’s start off with something positive. Forelsket describes how you feel when you first begin to fall in love. It’s that euphoric feeling of walking on air, when you view your paramour through rose-colored glasses and are convinced that the sun shines out of their posterior. All you want to do is gaze into each other’s eyes longingly and forget the rest of the world exists.

 2.)   Kilig (Tagalog) – Kilig is similar to forelsket…it’s the “weak in the knees, spontaneous blushing and quickening pulse, butterflies in the stomach” sensation you get when you see the person you’re in love with.

3.)   Naz (Urdu) – Technically this means “pride or arrogance,” but it’s a very specific kind. Naz means the confidence you feel because you know that someone loves you. It’s the self-esteem boost that comes along with being someone’s object of affection and desire. Sometimes it feels daunting  to be put on a pedestal…but sometimes it just feels damn validating. Naz describes the latter.

4.)   Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese) – Cafuné is definitely one of the more romantic words on this list, and it’s also one of the few that describes an action, rather than just an unquantifiable feelings. Cafuné is the act of running one’s fingers through their lover’s hair. That stereotypical rom-com moment when a man brushes back a woman’s hair before he kisses her or when a guy is languidly twirling his fingers through his girlfriend’s hair? That’s cafuné.

5.)   Retrouvailles (French) – Reunions are a beautiful thing. Retrouvailles  refers to the feeling of joy that accompanies seeing someone after a long separation. I felt retrouvailles pretty strongly last winter when I saw my family and friends for the first time in a year and a half…and that manifested into ugly-crying on my best friend’s shoulder in the baggage claim area of Dulles.

6.)   La douleur exquise (French) – It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the language of love shows up twice on this list, but la douleur exquise certainly isn’t as romantic or comforting as retrouvailles. It literally translates as “the exquisite pain,” and it refers to the feeling of loving someone who doesn’t return your affection. True, we’ve got “unrequited love” in English, but doesn’t la douleur exquise describe the feeling a lot more aptly?

7.)   Oodal (Tamil) – Oodal refers to the overly exaggerated, fake anger that follows a lovers’ quarrel. Basically, it’s when you sulk and pout dramatically after a fight with your significant other in an attempt to make them suck up to you and admit that they were wrong.

8.)   Koi no yokan (Japanese) – Koi no yokan is a feeling that arises when two compatible people meet for the first time. It’s not exactly “love at first sight,” but more like that first spark that makes you think, “Yeah, I could probably see starting something with you…” It’s the feeling that love or a relationship will blossom between the two of you in the future.

9.)   Litost (Czech) – This is not a happy love-related word. Litost means the misery you feel when you unexpectedly run into or see the person responsible for your heartbreak. It’s how you feel when you run into your ex at the grocery store, when you’re in your sweatpants and glasses, he’s with his supermodel-esque new girlfriend, and all you want to do is disappear into a hole in the ground and wallow.

10.) Dor (Romanian) – Dor means the heartbreak and sense of longing you feel because you’re separated from your love. Talk to any person who’s been in a long distance relationship, and they’ll know exactly what dor feels like. There’s actually also a close Portuguese counterpart to dor: saudade.

11.) Ya’aburnee (Arabic) – Like so many great love stories, ya’aburnee is both heart-achingly romantic and just a tiny bit morbid. It literally translates to “you bury me” and it expresses the desire to die before your lover so don’t have to live without them. Romeo and Juliet would have loved this phrase.

12.) Mamihlapinatapei (Yaghan) – Say this one five times fast. Mamihlapinatapei means a look that’s exchanged between two people, both of whom want to start a relationship, but are too shy to do so. Honestly, though, I kind of doubt how often this happens…most times, I think it’d be closer to this thought process:

Person #1: “I really like him/her…but I’m too shy to act on it. I bet he/she likes me too, but maybe he/she is just as shy as me!”

Person #2: “…why does he/she keep looking at me like that?

13.) Giri choco (Japanese) – You know how, in elementary school, your mum would make you give a Valentine to that one weird kid who sat in the back of the class and ate his boogers, even though you didn’t really want to? That’s giri choco. It’s chocolate that you don’t really want to give someone, but you do it anyway because you feel obligated to do so. Maybe they’re perpetually single or just a little socially out-of-tune, but whatever the reason, your giri choco might be the only one they get.

14.) Kummerspeck (German) – Okay, so technically Kummerspeck doesn’t really have to do with love. It translates as “grief bacon” and it means the weight you gain from eating food when you’re down in the dumps. It’s the aftereffects of hitting the Ben & Jerry’s, Godiva truffles, and Cupcake pinot noir a little too heavily. And let’s face it, on a holiday where romance is pretty much shoved down our throats whether we like it or not, kummerspeck is bound to rear its pudgy head for us single folk. Bring on the chocolate and wine.

2 thoughts on “14 Untranslatable Words About Love”

  1. Gan qing (mandarin): the kind of love you feel for someone that you’ve been with for a while, that doesn’t disappear with passion. It’s a feeling you only get with experience and time with a person.


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