11 untranslatable words all book lovers will understand




“Language has no independent existence apart from the people who use it. It is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end of understanding who you are and what society is like.” — David Crystal


Words. Words. Words.

Beautiful, evocative, and slightly miraculous when you think about them.

How can little squiggles on paper create worlds and spell magic? How can sounds – round, flat, glottal, spat – go from gibberish to poetry with a modicum of rearrangement? What is it about words that allows us to communicate? How do they create those keys with which to unlock one another, to share parts of our inner worlds with each other, to understand and connect and entrain and become – in some small sense – part of one another?

Now I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I love asking them. Discovering theories about them always thrills me. Perhaps almost as much as discovering new, untranslatable words like the following list from Word Stuck. They’re some of my favourites. If you’re a logophile or a scribbler, then I suspect they may soon be yours as well.



original.gifWhat’s not to love about this beautiful, bookish, untranslatable word? Whilst it literally means ‘reading pile’ (#toberead), it’s also a clever little pun if you write it in Japanese. According to Open Culture, “As written in Japanese (積ん読), tsunde oku means to let something pile up and is written 積んでおく. Some wag around the turn of the 20th century swapped out that oku (おく) in tsunde oku for doku (読) – meaning to read. Then since tsunde doku is hard to say, the word got mushed together to form tsundoku.” Pretty clever, huh? And don’t deny it, you’re probably just as guilty of tsundoku as me.



What writer doesn’t love that rush of inspiration, the thrill of putting words on paper, the act of creating that vision in your head? It’s like a little monster in your head. Well here’s a mouthful that I find delightful precisely because it’s a multisyllabic, chimerical beast of a word that means exactly that. English isn’t always the most beautiful language. It’s not as lyrical or rhythmic as, say, French and Italian. Nor is it full of a thousand secret meanings like Japanese or Mandarin. However, it’s a language full of other languages – just like rastrophiliopustrocity. Fitting, don’t you think? A monstrous combustion of ideas contained within a combustion of meaning.



giphy-7Dreamer. You know you are a dreamer. Imagine that song with this word. The result is quite funny. But this gorgeous Portugese word trips off the tongue with a certain appropriate delicacy. It’s also the word I suspect my mum was looking for all those times she found me daydreaming or playing pretend when I should have been doing something else. Writing and reading are so much about inhabiting your fictional worlds. Sometimes it feels like there’s a secondary layer to reality because you’re seeing the past, the future, the fantasy rather than the every day world around you. That real-unreal sensation also seems to be evoked with nefelibata.



tumblr_nt5wdoyKU71su85gro1_500.gifIf you’re more need for speed than whimsical, perhaps this Mongolian verb is more your pace. Temul is a brilliant word – the way it moves through your mouth, the fact it’s so close to tumult in English on paper. But the coolest thing by far is that Ghengis Khan’s original name was Temujin, which takes temul as it’s root. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, there’s this further explanation of the word that just adds to its power – “the look in the eye of a horse that is racing where it wants to go, no matter what the rider wants.” Who hasn’t felt like that with a plot bunny on the brain?


5. MAC KHACH tumblr_nkx7tk0zMU1su85gro1_500.gifYou’ve probably heard of bibliophiles, those bookish hearts that flutter like pages. But the Vietnamese language has a special treat for you – a noun to tap into your love of literature as well as the vessel itself. If this doesn’t apply to you, I’m not entirely sure what you’re doing reading this list.



giphy-4.gifThe other day I went to a book tour for V E Schwab and she was asked to give advice to aspiring writers. It was, to say the least, surprising to hear her response: Don’t write. If there is anything else in the world you can possibly do that you love as much as writing, do that instead. But if you’re a scribbler, I’m guessing that idea makes your soul quiver. Honestly, all I have to do is think about not writing to feel a heavy dose of the existential angst. However, most of the time I’m just scripturient, consumed by my desire to put pen to paper. Who else can relate?



341481741c9305cf5e88c58dce728a7f.gifWell if you could relate to being scripturient, then you may well identify as having cacoethes scribendi, an overwhelming – almost maddening – desire to write. A noun rather than an adjective, this Latin phrase comes from Juvenal’s Satires and takes a less positive tone – ‘cacoethes’ translates as ‘bad habit’, borrowing from the Greek for ‘malignant disease’. It’s critical, wry, often scornful – a sentiment captured rather humorously by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his poem of the same name. However, if you’ve ever felt like a tortured artist and then wanted to roll your eyes at yourself? Then this might be your word.



ee0d6dd49fa0c4a8bb268c338de1d1d5.gifFar from Greek to most people, meraki is a verb I suspect a lot of people will appreciate. It sort combines ardour and affection but at a deeper level, suggesting how we pour ourselves into the things we love in a deeper way. Interestingly, the word has Turkish etymology – stemming from the word ‘Merak’, meaning ‘a labour of love’, and if you’re a person who lives their whole life pouring their heart into what they do, you’re called a ‘meraklis’. Some, like Van Gogh, suggested living this way can lead to madness (a definite possibility for many writers). But who else would take the risk to write, create, with real soul?



tumblr_n53qrhPkMh1su85gro1_500.pngAnother English monster – here we are with a Latinate descriptor for persons who read books in bed. I’m adding it here because not only is this one of the most apt words to predict my weekend plans but I’ll happily assume that many of you will also be reading this blog in bed. I see you.



tumblr_mo2b3q9sdI1su85gro1_r2_500.gifHands up if a particular book sprang to mind as you read this? No? Fibber. For me, there are about ten books I return to time and again – The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, pretty much all the Roald Dahl books and a few others too. I don’t know if you can have multiple favourite books in the sense of vade mecum though… What would yours be? Let me know in the comments. 



tumblr_nnlekq9HNe1su85gro1_500-1For some there’s nothing but writing. To write is to breathe. Yes, it is consuming and perhaps a little odd, but it’s how scribblers stay sane when they really have no right to be, living in those clouds as they do. Writing is, entirely, a reason for being. Perhaps it’s our openness to experience that makes this the case, a permeability of consciousness. Maybe it’s something else. But whatever it is, this perfect Japanese word says it all: writing is our ikigai.

8 thoughts on “11 untranslatable words all book lovers will understand

  1. Angelo says:

    The ‘vade mecum ‘ books that come to mind for me are
    The Great Gatsby – F.Scott Fitzgerald
    The Stranger – Albert Camus
    The Hunger – Knut Hamsun
    1984 – George Orwell

    Great words btw

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Geoffrey Brook says:

    My two long love loved books are “Footloose in India” by Gordon Sinclair first read in 1944 and “Waiting for the morning train” by Bruce Catton since 1972

    Liked by 1 person

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