Time To Explain: English Words That Don't Translate

Tori TornRevisado porNataliia Afonina / más sobre Proceso editorial16 min
Creado: Jan 30, 2023Última actualización: Jan 29, 2024
English Words That Don't Translate

Pop culture and social media trends keep proving that language is a living organism that constantly evolves, grows, and changes. And as long as people continue to progress in every aspect of their life, new terms will come into use, and some will be untranslatable words. 

Unfortunately, it may be challenging for some English learners to memorize the word they can't translate into their native language. Nonetheless, it shouldn't stop them from growing their English vocabulary and achieving proficiency. That is why today, Promova will introduce you to some untranslatable words in English, explain why they can't be translated into other languages, and teach you how to overcome the struggle of translating them. So get ready to be shell-shocked!

Why Untranslatable Words Exist And How To Handle Them

It is safe to say that untranslatable words exist in all languages. And modern English is no exception to that rule. People, who are not linguists, often wonder why there are English words that can't be translated into other languages. There is an easy answer to this question – this is how it happened historically. What we mean by that is that every culture is unique, so people might or might not need some terms to express themselves. 

If we take a closer look at modern American English, we'll see that it was influenced by several languages worldwide. Today, it reflects the blending of different cultures and backgrounds that happened to live on the same territory after Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. Even now, English, like any other language, continues to grow its vocabulary due to technological development and cultural exchange. So, there will be more words that don't translate to other languages. 

Let's say you can, except the number of untranslatable words in English will increase. But what to do if you still need to translate them and there is no adequate equivalent in the target language?

  1. Understand the meaning of the word. You need to go deeper if the literal translation is not an option. Read the definition of the English word in several dictionaries such as Merriam-WebsterOxford, and Cambridge. You aim to comprehend and figure out the quintessence of the term so you can translate it to another language as closely as possible. 
  2. Look for the etymology of the term. Etymology is the study of a word's origins. Since English is not your first language, the term's etymology can help you understand its meaning. 
  3. Adapt or borrow the word. You have two options when you conclude that the word-for-word translation is impossible. The first would be an adaptation, explaining the term's meaning with several words. The second is simply borrowing the phrase and adjusting it to the rules and grammar of another language. Many modern English words from the last decade were borrowed from other languages. We'll see some examples further on. 

However, remember that translating English to another language is not the goal for English learners. Your main aim is to operate fluently in another language to the point where you don't need a translation. 

Untranslatable English Words You Need To Know

There is no such thing as only certain parts of speech in English that don't translate. Any noun, verb, or adjective can turn out to be untranslatable in different languages. However, some terms are so unique to the English language that it would be impossible to translate them into one word for most languages worldwide. Let's see some examples. 

English Words That Don't Translate: Nouns

Serendipity

This term means making a pleasant discovery by accident. How fascinating that someone decided to come up with a separate word. Who was that? A British writer Horace Walpole. He used "serendipity" in his folk tale about princes of Serendip, an ancient name for Sri Lanka, in the 18th century. Unfortunately, you won't be able to translate the term into one word in other languages. However, you can still explain it in several words. 

Cancel culture

Cancel culture is a relatively new phenomenon and term that became famous thanks to social media. According to The Telegraph, it means "withdrawing of support from public figures whose words and actions were considered socially unacceptable." Even though it is kind of possible to translate this term to other languages, it will sound harsh and unrecognizable since it was created in an English-speaking country. So, eventually, the younger generation won't even try translating "cancel culture" while speaking their native language. It's just a waste of time and words. 

Globish

You won't believe us, but Globish is a language. To be specific, it's a simplified version of English that non-native speakers all around the globe speak. By Globish, people mostly understand a list of 1500 essential English words, phrases, and simple grammar. Jean-Paul Nerrière settled the term in 2004. It's a specific term, so no wonder there is no proper translation into other languages. As English learners, we all go through the Globish stage. It is essential to have dedication and work hard to go beyond it. 

Spam

This word is well-known to everybody because of the same-name folder in our emails. However, it has a long history. Back in 1937, people used it to define an undesirable pork shoulder cut. The term is a smash of two words - "spiced" and "ham." Today, spam means not only unwanted emails but any type of unsolicited messages you can receive. We bet you use the word "spam" without a unique translation to your language. 

Insight

Those who work in a creative industry in any country must've already gotten used to the term "insight." In many languages, it is perceived as an untranslatable English word, so people just use it as it is. Insight means a deep knowledge about the situation gained suddenly. Usually, it helps in solving problems, so insights are treasurable. 

Bromance

Dating is a very popular thing in the USA. That may be why so many dating words in English don't exist in other languages. Just read this article about dating slang. To explain to someone what those terms mean in a different language than English, you will need a minute and definitely more than one word. 

Even though "bromance" can't be legitimized as a part of dating vocabulary, the "romance" component suggests it is about attraction and relationships. Bromance is a 90's slang that was created as a result of combining "bro" ("brother") and "romance." It emphasizes a strong bond and close friendship between men with no real romantic or sexual context. Simply put, guys also have BFFs. 

Crush

In the TikTok era, there is no way that you don't know what a crush is. However, we can believe the equivalent for this English term does not exist in your native language. Just to be sure, a crush is a person for whom you got intense but sudden and temporary feelings. The term got its love meaning because of how a person who likes someone feels. Those feeling and emotions can crush your heart and mind. The common variations of confessing feelings with this word are "to have a crush on someone" or "someone is someone's crush."

Words That Can't Be Translated: English Verbs

To google

Over the years, we have gotten so used to some neologisms that it doesn't occur to us that some words are weird and unique. The verb "google" is a perfect example of such a term. It came into use in the early 2000s after the Google search engine became popular. People needed a verb that would mean searching for information in Google, so Americans made a verb out of the engine's name. Other languages have never felt like they needed to develop a translation for this verb, so they borrowed it as it was and kept it to use. 

To sulk

Often English learners think of the verb "to sulk" as "to be silent and sad." However, the definition of this term is much broader because when a person sulks, they do not just decide to be silent and sad, they have a reason for that. The full meaning of "to sulk" is to be quiet and low because someone is annoyed or disappointed with someone else's actions. People usually refer to childish behavior when they say someone sulks since there is no good reason to feel what they feel. 

To scroll

"To scroll" is another example of neologism formed in an English-speaking country and borrowed into other languages. The term means moving a display on a screen upwards or downwards to view different parts of the information represented on it. We usually use this word to say that we are using social media such as Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok. 

To chillax

Merging words in one term is a typical thing in the English language. And because of that translation, the term becomes an untranslatable word. "To chillax" is compound slang that was created out of the verbs "to chill" and "to relax," so it means both at the same time. It would be fascinating to observe how the term would be translated into different languages. There may be no proper equivalent for it in any language. 

To pimp

This untranslatable English word definitely will surprise you with the history of its meaning. It has drastically changed over the years. In the 1700s, the pimp was used as a noun which meant a man who was a boss of prostitutes and sold their services. Pimps dressed in showy outfits to identify themselves and attract attention to sell their girls. So, nowadays, "pimp" turned into a verb with several meanings – to "sell" something or someone by recommending it or to decorate and pretty yourself up. Street culture made sure the word would be challenging to translate. 

To ghost

Another slang from American dating culture that might not even be in use in other languages. "To ghost" means to cut off all communication with a person suddenly without any explanation. It usually happens after a couple of messages on dating apps or a couple of first dates. People don't want to get deep and honest about why they don't like you or don't see any future together. It's much easier to ghost someone than to deal with real people's reactions and emotions — no strings attached. If someone ghosted you, let them go. 

To zump

If you thought the pandemic and lockdown didn't affect modern vocabulary, we suggest you think again. Of course, COVID-19 influenced the English glossary and pushed people to come up with new terms. One of the untranslatable pandemic words in English is "to zump." The verb means to end relationships via Zoom. It cannot be translated correctly in one word to any other language because it is a smash of to terms "Zoom" and "to dump," which means break up with someone. When people couldn't meet in person, but ending things up over the phone or a text seemed immature and rude, they threw Zoom meetings to split up more civilized. 

English Words That Can't Be Translated: Adjectives

Cheesy

Let's make it clear right away. This adjective has nothing to do with cheese. We are pointing that out just in case you eventually decide to translate it into any other language. Cheesy is an English slang describing someone who tries too hard and makes cheap moves, especially to be liked. You often can hear this untranslatable word in movies and TV shows when guys throw their pickup lines, and girls call them cheesy. Why? Because they try that hard that it stinks like cheese, for example, a blue one. 

Hangry

Have you ever been so hungry that you got angry? It happens all the time, we know! Probably, that is the real reason why people came up with a unique adjective for such a feeling. It is hangry. The term's history dates back to the 20th century, so it is an oldie. However, "hangry" became a thing not that long ago. Social media and the film industry made it big recently. 

Shallow

The literal meaning of the word "shallow" is a little depth in the ocean, sea, river, lake, or any water. And that is what Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper are singing about in their touching one named song. However, as an adjective, it is one of those English words that cannot be translated in one word to another language. The definition of "shallow" is lacking depth emotionally or intellectually. A suitable synonym for the term would be "superficial," but it doesn't display the meaning of the word entirely. 

Kitsch

Initially, the adjective "kitsch" comes from the German language. So, technically, it can be translated to German as the same word. But rather than that, "kitsch" is an untranslatable English word that rose its popularity in the 60s due to a boom of cheap and commercial art. The term means tasteless and vulgar but is still ironically appreciated by the audience. The adjective is usually applied only to describe art and design. A suitable English synonym for kitsch is tacky. 

Icky

The adjective "icky" is a part of American English slang. Linguists assume that it originated from the 1920's slang "icky-boo," which means sickly or nauseated in baby talk. Another definition of "icky" is sticky and repulsive. Back in the late 1930s, this term described sentimental jazz lovers. So, today's meaning of the adjective combines two previous ones. These days, "icky" stands for unpleasantly sticky on an emotional level. 

Cheugy

If you are a millennial, you must've heard the English word "cheugy." An ordinary American high school student, Gaby Rasson, from Los Angeles, created this word from scratch in 2013. As she explained in one interview, she was looking for an adjective that could describe people out of trend and trying too hard to fit in. Struggling to explain the meaning in one word, Gaby came up with her own unique expression. Later on, her classmates and other peers popularized it in the USA. However, the new wave of popularity for "cheugy" came in 2021. Hallie Cain, 24, a copywriter in Los Angeles, posted a video on TikTok where she reminded people of what "cheugy" was.

-ish

This little thing is not an adjective by itself. However, you can see it attached to many adjectives to create a different meaning out of them. If you add a suffix -ish to an already existing adjective, the sense of the word will change to "approximately" or "somewhat," plus the main characteristic. Let's break it down for you with an example. If you add -ish to the adjective "sweet," you will get "sweetish." The resulting term means something is more or less sweet. The suffix -ish indicates the uncertainty of the characteristic. That is why English adjectives that end with -ish are untranslatable words. 

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How To Learn Untranslatable Words In English With Promova

Everybody has their own weak spots in learning English. Some people need help comprehending grammar from the first attempt, but most English learners struggle with memorizing words and phrases. The most common reasons it is so tricky to engrave new vocabulary in your memory are the dissimilarity in spelling and pronunciation and not appreciating the term's meaning. The last issue can appear when English students try to learn new words and phrases through translation to their native English rather than a definition of the term in English. It can turn into a real break dealer when an English term you want to memorize turns out to be untranslatable. That is why the language learning platform Promova offers to learn English through English. 

To begin learning English through English, use the Promova app. We've created themed courses with bite-sized lessons that allow you to learn English without translating into another language. Just pick English as a language you want to learn and a language you want to learn it in. then choose one of the Promova courses – General English, English With TV Series, Business English, or Travel English and start your learning journey. 

If you are a beginner, you would still benefit from learning English through English on the Promova app. We have bite-sized lessons for different English levels. After taking a quick test, the algorithms will determine your English level so that you will get a guided learning experience. At the very beginning, you will learn new words with cute flashcards and memorable images. Later on, on top of that, you will get a simple explanation of each term in English. It will help you immerse in English fully. The higher your level, the more complex vocabulary you will learn. Soon you will be able to distinguish the slightest shades of meaning of various adjectives, verbs, and nouns. 

Another thing you can do to learn untranslatable words in English is to sign up for the Promova tutoring program. Our certified professionals teach English through English in their classes, so you won't need translation to your native language to memorize new vocabulary. You can take a placement test to determine your level of English proficiency, take one free trial lesson to assess your goals, and dive into learning. With Promova, you can find a tutor for different levels and skills, such as American English, English Writing, British English, English Grammar, etc. We offer 25, 50, and 90min classes so that you can choose the most convenient option for you. The tutoring experience can be group or individual, as you wish. 

Also, as the cherry on top, we give our students the possibility to practice English in the meetings of the Promova Conversation Club for free. The classes are held once a week. Students and the mediator teacher discuss a new topic every time. All upcoming meetings, along with the topics, are listed on our official website. Make sure to book it in advance because we work in small groups so everyone can speak and be heard. 

Conclusion

There are a lot of words that only exist in the English language. Some can't be translated into one word, so languages either borrow or don't use them because of lack of need. However, it shouldn't stop you from learning English words without translation. All you need to do is to set your mind to learning English through English. It will allow you to comprehend the language better and finally start to feel it. In the beginning, you might need to put a bit of extra effort into switching your mind to learning through English. However, that is the beauty of such an approach. Practicing English through English will make you fluent in no time. Just keep going!

FAQ

Is English the hardest language to translate?

Surprisingly, it is not. The most difficult languages to translate are Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Thai, and Hungarian. However, you are not the only one who struggles with translating English words into your native language. Many people find English a complex and notoriously tricky language to translate from. One of the reasons is that some words can't be translated directly since they were formed in an English-speaking environment, and other languages couldn't fit their meaning in one word, so they explain its meaning more broadly. Sometimes other languages can even borrow some English words to their language in order not to overwhelm native speakers. Usually, that happens with slang and neologisms. The perfect example of that is the word "crush," which became popular among non-native English speakers because of the influence of social media. As a result, it was easier for people to borrow the word than to explain its meaning in several words in their native languages every time they needed to use it. 

What to do if I can't translate the word?

The primary purpose of learning any foreign language is to understand and not translate every word in your head. However, you would argue with us by saying that to learn any word, you must translate it into your native language. Wrong! That's a common misconception that should be eradicated from language learners' minds. To memorize a word and then use it as a part of your active vocabulary, you need to understand its meaning. So, to understand what "hangry" is, for instance, you just need to read the definition in English and check how it can be used in a sentence. Learning English through English is the most effective way of adjusting to the language. It's a part of complete immersion into the language environment. 

What is an Anglicism?

According to Cambridge Dictionary, Anglicism is an English word or phrase used in another language. A variety of Anglicism is Americanism, borrowing from the American version of the English language. They are a part of vocabulary borrowed from another language. People integrated Anglicisms into their languages because the terms developed in English-speaking countries and only then came into use in other languages. Since the English words were capacious enough in terms of meaning, other languages just borrowed them in the process of natural language exposure and exchange. 

Do untranslatable words exist in other languages?

Of course! Untranslatable words are not a unique phenomenon typical only for English languages. Every language has words that don't translate to English or other languages directly, just in one word. Sometimes you need several words to explain the meaning of a foreign term that isn't common in your native language. For instance, the term "fisselig" In German can't be translated into English in one word. It is an adjective that means being frustrated to the point where you can't finish something or function. 

Comentarios

Jasmine Jan 4th, 2024
"People who aren't linguist" & "when Christopher Columbus discovered America" two statements that completely destroyed your credibility and my ability to finish reading this.
PromovaDec 12th, 2023
Untranslatable words exist due to the unique cultural contexts and experiences that shape languages. Each culture develops its own concepts and expressions that might not have direct equivalents in other languages. This phenomenon occurs in English as well, stemming from historical influences and the amalgamation of various cultures over time. For instance, words rooted in specific cultural practices or emotions may lack precise counterparts in other languages due to differing societal structures and experiences.
Ellie 🍀Dec 12th, 2023
Why do untranslatable words exist in languages, including English?
Upton-FlyntJul 20th, 2023
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece! It's amazing how some English words carry such unique meanings and emotions that can't be easily expressed in other languages.