Random Sunday: Educate Me

By March

Several years ago I was reading a book (probably a travel book) and the author mentioned the existence of a word or phrase that means the delightful sensation of finding oneself in unfamiliar surroundings, more or less.  I can’t remember the language – French?  Italian?  Portuguese?   But I do remember smiling to myself and thinking, well, it wouldn’t be a standard American English expression.  Here in the U.S., the word for not knowing where you are is lost – a word which, in broad stereotype, suggests an imminent, frantic deployment of cell phone or GPS or, in days of yore, an argument with the spouse regarding pulling over into the gas station to ask for directions.

In perfume discussions we use the term jolie-laide, a French expression which translates literally, I think, to pretty-ugly.  It’s a wonderful term and so useful in discussing those scents which are, well, not conventionally pretty while still being beautiful, or striking.  Jolie-laide, to me, is a compliment of the highest sort, although I wonder if that would be true to French speakers.  I suppose like so many things, context would be everything.  Also, in French, is it only used to refer to the appearance of a person, or can you use it more broadly?

So today’s Random Sunday stems from my language-geekery; I love discussing the nuance in other languages, as some of you already know if you’ve been trapped in one of my email cycles when I jump around like a puppy, all excited and wanting to understand the subtleties or deployment of some interesting word or concept in your language.  I invite all of you who speak another language (including Aussie, Kiwi or UK English) to share in comments a word or an expression you know that is useful, enchanting, evocative of your culture, etc., that we don’t have.  I bet French and Russian are full of them … heck, every foreign language must have its interesting terms that I wish we’d co-opt into standard English.

So, offer ’em up!   What word or phrase have you tried to translate into English to be told, well, there’s really nothing quite like that.   Or, you can do the reverse – is there an expression in English that you find baffling, interesting, hilarious, confusing?

Bonus points for anyone who can provide the word or phrase I can’t remember that means the delightful sensation of finding oneself in unfamiliar surroundings (that’s my recollected paraphrase.)  I’d love to know what culture finds a need for that.

image: Urbino, Italy, wikimedia commons

  • Disteza says:

    Wish I would have had the time to post on Sunday, but if anyone is still reading, one of my favorite words is the German ‘weltschmerz’ which is defined as ‘the mental depression casued by comparing the world as it is to the world as envisioned as it could be in an ideal state’.

    I think it’s interesting to look at the various interjections in Spanish that all sound similar to olé, which is actually not used that much. You can always tell the non-Spaniards at a flamenco show when they start shouting “O-LAY!”. There’s ojalá (let’s hope for it), híjale (wow, cool), jále (that’s the way to do it, a term of general encouragement) and órale (same as jále).

    Also, I like the idea that the Spanish phrase for ‘to give birth’ is dar a luz. which literally translates ‘to bring/give a light’.

    Wow, there’s an awful lot more out there, aren’t there?

  • odonata9 says:

    Haven’t read through all these yet, so don’t know how duplicative these are, but this article has lots of fun ones: “20 awesomeely untranslatable words from around the world”

    Love the word saudade – sounds just like the meaning.

  • koki2 says:

    Can’t believe there aren’t any Texas-isms posted here yet. One of my favorites is “ten pounds in a five pound bag” to describe trying to do too much with not enough – “Putting 8 kids in the Prius is like trying to fit ten pounds . . .” You get the idea.

  • Karen G says:

    My Nanna used to say that someone was “not just whistling Dixie.” when they were serious about something. Like not just talking out their a**. :)

  • Margot says:

    What a wonderful post! So much fun to read! My Irish grandmother used to say ” he/she will be red headed at ya!” to warn against saying something that might provoke a very angry response. And yes, she was a red head :)

  • sweetlife says:

    Love this post–so glad I caught it, though I’m late to the party.

    Will add the word “kerfuffle” which is a noun that means something like “much ado about nothing.” I’ve always thought it sounds like the Marx Brothers shuffling their feet and falling over one another.

    And also, “six in one” which is short for “six in one, half a dozen of the other,” meaning, a choice that makes no real difference, but with an air of resignation, I think. It’s an expression I grew up hearing both my parents use and employ without thinking about it–many puzzled looks.

    • (Ms.)Christian says:

      I think the expression is “six OF one, half a dozen of the other.”

      • sweetlife says:

        Yes, you are right, that’s the original, and it makes far more sense that way, but by the time it got down to me it had morphed into the all-purpose “six-in-one.” :-)

        • sweetlife says:

          And come to think of it, I always imagined someone as holding eggs in their hands — six IN one, half a dozen in the other–though I’m sure that is just, um, special to me.

  • Bjorn says:

    My colleague from Finland has this great expression when we are discussing problems at work and what to do to solve them; “We need to put the cat on the table!”

    I don’t know how you would say in in Finnish, (she will say it in Norwegian to me). But it creates such vivid image to me, an angry black cat pacing the table. And it means, as far as I can tell, to get all the facts and have an open discussion.

  • grizzlesnort says:

    from Sp. and Portuguese-madrugada(n) comes to mind-could be very, very, very late at night or very, very, very early in the morning-but conceptually it’s something apart from either one.

    from English–explaining why we say ‘I’m burning up’ but “the house is burning down,” or “now, then.” or “make sure it’s fully empty..” for starters.

  • helenviolette says:

    Fun post- loved reading through these :) I personally love the diction of many “Southern women of a certain age”…a few expressions come to mind:

    Dear Heart- my grandmother would use this to punctuate something she thought I should do or should know better- as in “have you done your lessons yet, dear heart?” or “that skirt deserves a slip, dear heart”

    My great grandmother would let me know if she was “getting herself up to go out”- “putting her face on” or “getting gussied up” and if I impressed her sister (my great- great aunt)in some way she would say “you are SO fine!”

    • helenviolette says:

      Looking back I see I did not define my great- granny’s expressions which were about getting dressed up and putting on cosmetics…in case some folks were wondering :)

  • donanicola says:

    Favourite words – faff/faffing. Meaning to wander about half doing things, ineffectual action in a pleasant way. Apparently it comes from the notion of a limp flag just hanging (ineffectually) in the breeze. And “shrammed” meaning cold, very very cold. My brother has these sayings (quite possibly taken from Mike Leigh films) – “turned out nice again” said at the end of the day when looking back at day’s events and “top of the world” – again, that feeling when things/life is just right. I’ve enjoyed this fascinating post, thanks!

    • Austenfan says:

      Faffing about is a wonderful expression. I have heard it frequently on the BBC. All those fff’s make it funny.

    • sweetlife says:

      Totally associate this word with Nigella Lawson, who usually employs it in the context of “not having time to be faffing about” ie doing too many little fiddly things in the kitchen.

    • Elisa says:

      That reminds me of the French word “flaneur,” someone who strolls about.

  • Austenfan says:

    Another great French expression: Sans gêne. The literal translation would be something like: without shame, it is used for people who behave without consideration for others, and without dignity. Sort of.

  • Francesca says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading all these comments so much. What a great post, March, Brava!

  • Musette says:

    Fun post, honeydoll! I’m still too stoned on Vitamin V to think straight but I do know that one of my favorites is ‘havey-cavey’, which always elicits odd looks. I also like the phrase ‘liverish’ – it always makes me giggle, even when I actually am feeling liverish b-(

    xo >-)

  • Elisa says:

    I love the Italian word “sprezzatura,” which refers to a bit of effortless sloppiness in style, like a slightly crooked pocket square or uneven cuffs.

    I also like the Chinese word “mama huhu,” which translates easily enough to “so-so,” but literally means horse-horse-tiger-tiger.

  • maggiecat says:

    What a delightful post! I’m laid up a bit today and this is the most fun I’ve had. I’ve little to add – except to note that “comme ce, comme ca” sounds better than the now ubiquitous “It is what it is” and maenas roughly the same thing. Welcome back March!

  • Kelly says:

    Another one I love (because I don’t understand it) is “pizdanaesh” (pardon my Russian!) As far as I can tell, it’s a swear word for lying. I guess I never thought I needed a swear word for lying…. unless it’s “you’re effing lying!”

    Thanks, March, for the topic. I could spend HOURS trying to understand the nuances, and loving every second of the frustration!

  • Kati says:

    Oh! This is one of my favourite things to talk about! Language *is* a toy, and such a fun one! I am an Allophone Canadian living in Quebec,having learned French in Anglo-Canada as a child. My two favourite expressions I’ve learned since moving here are “c’est aggressant” which roughly translates as “it’s annoying/irritating to the point of doing me violence” Think an eight-hour plane ride with a screaming baby, or the drill at the dentist. It transcends irritation. The other one I really love is “bordelle” which is like an enormous mess, a total disaster, a disgusting situation. But, when tacked on to the end of a phrase like “un peu de tendresse, bordelle de merde!” it becomes something like “for crying out loud!”
    Great Sunday topic, March!

  • Louise says:

    To be “entre deux chaise” is a great French expression-literally (seated) between 2 chairs-so it can mean “undecided”, or “neither here nor there”, but expresses both better than the translation.

    Another is “l’esprit de l’escalier” usually translated as “staircase wit”, the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it (from wiki). I can relate to this one very well, whereas I usually find myself sputtering “but, but” or “damn” to myself for several hours after a lost opportunity.

    • Francesca says:

      I also love “l’esprit de l’escalier.” In fact, one of my friends sometimes signs himself “Chevalier de l’esprit de l’escalier.” Also like “retournons a nos moutons,” “Let’s get back to our sheep,” meaning “let’s get back on topic.” I wonder where that came from?

    • Pimpinett says:

      In Swedish “hamna mellan stolarna”, ending up between the chairs, is an expression that is mainly used in connection with situations when someone or something is being referred back and forth between different institutions or authorities, neither authority wanting to take responsibility for the case.

      The fact that it’s a well-known and commonly used expression possibly says something about Swedish bureaucracy. :)

  • (Ms.)Christian says:

    I felt like running around the house screaming “hooray” when I saw a post by March this morning. Better than the finest pot of tea and the tenderest of scones for brekkie.

    Since I’m American and many people have already mentioned “Britishisms” amd Cockney rhyming slang, I have nothing to add other than to say thank you for doing a Sunday post.

  • Kelly says:

    The Russian word obozhayu is one we need in English. It’s that word that’s bigger than “love”. :x

    • Marla says:

      “Adore”- a more spiritual expression….Etymologically, it means, “to make a god out of >>>>>(someone).”

      • Kelly says:

        Funny, though, that “adore” is a step below love in English… at least to my mind. I guess “worship” would be “to make a god of” but it doesn’t sound as good rolling off the tongue ;)

  • Ann says:

    Hi March sweetie, fun post and so nice to see you back in the saddle. Thanks all for these great replies — I’m learning (and laughing) so much!!

  • FragrantWitch says:

    As an American living in England, married to an Englishman, I find that British English and American English can be very different! When I first arrived I went into the grocery store looking for Saran Wrap, zucchini, tin foil and jam- and discovered it should have been clingfilm, courgette, aluminium foil and conserve. Food shopping was fascinating- so many things were called by a different name and the the vast majority oflabels and brands were foreign. The experience of being stuck in traffic could no longer make ‘me ‘ p*ssed off’ because that didn’t mean angry rather it means drunk. Drunk is also ‘legless’, ‘paralytic’ or when you are drunk you have ‘lost the plot’- no one knew what ‘3 sheets to the wind’ meant.
    No one ‘shoots the breeze’ here either!
    I could go on and on butIll spare you all and leave you with my fairly pedestrian fabeourite phrase from my first days
    Here-‘wobbly’ to throw a wobbly is to have a complete freak-out complete with teas and

    • FragrantWitch says:

      Arrghh… Tears and shouting I meant to say, rather like a child does when they are overtired. And we all have those days don’t we?? ;-)

    • March says:

      I knew most of those! Too much Brit miniseries? And I knew “pissed,” that one’s funny. I wonder if all (drinking) countries have as many slang expressions for drunk?

    • March says:

      Also off topic and NOT trying to pick any fights — when I visited London I was surprised at how completely drunk people would get at the pubs after work – I mean, nicely dressed people, absolutely plowed and staggering. Public drunkenness isn’t as acceptable around here.

      • Olfacta says:

        It’s ok in Japan too, or used to be. Another group famous for public drunk in Britain — the sort of holligans you see beating each other up at soccer matches — are called “lager louts.”

      • jen says:

        I remember that–a nice upscale pub in Mayfair, everyone dressed to the nines and the guys drunk on their ass and asking our group questions about American TV.

      • FragrantWitch says:

        It is true, alcohol is more freely imbibed here. I was blown away when I first took a train from London to Edinburgh and the women next to ‘me had a picnic spread on their table and 2 bottles of wine, with nice glasses. Not a brown bag in sight! Beer and wine are sold on standard commuter trains so if you’ve had a rough day and need a beer, just crack one open on the train! The amount of drunken people on a Saturday night in the town centre is quite something. And lager louts, well that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish…

    • Olfacta says:

      Do they still say “spend a penny” for “go to the restroom?” Or is that just hopelessly old fashioned?

      The British have some wonderfully efficient expressions too. Like “bed-sitter” for “apartment so small you have to sit on the bed.” A one-room apartment.

    • Ann says:

      Hi M, all your British-isms are making me smile. Some of these I hadn’t heard before …

    • donanicola says:

      Excuse me, (am English living in London), but you can be p*ssed off about traffic – absolutely and totally! My friends and I are p*ssed off about traffic always. Maybe we learned to add the off from our US friends, I don’t know. But yes, “p*ssed” is another word for drunk. “Trollied” too!

    • Gretchen says:

      “Three sheets to the wind” – I always thought that was an Irish expression (it was handed down in my family from my Irish-American grandmother). It must refer to the image of a sailing ship in full sail, so describes someone who’s flamboyantly drunk, not just starting to “tie one on” (another funny expression. Really, there are probably more slang terms for drunkeness than anything else, in any language). “Drunk as a lord” was another Irishism of hers, uttered with angry scorn.

  • Melissa says:

    Olfacta and Francesca, thanks for mentioning Yiddish. I grew up surrounded by Yiddish expressions. The language is such a rich source of entertaining utterances, with its many terms of endearment, eye-rolling insults and innumerable ways to complain. As for translation into English? So many of the phrases/expressions not only translate, but they also they seem to meld fluidly into our sentence structure.

    My father often calls people schnorrers, but he will also jokingly apply the term to himself. When he’s irritated with someone who he thinks is carrying on in a somewhat crazy way, he comments on the person’s mishegas (craziness). And for those times when somebody deserves praise for honorable deeds, he will occasionally call the person a mentsh.

  • Francesca says:

    Millicent’s post above reminded me of another word I love: saudade, which is pronounced, roughly, saodadzh. It’s Portuguese, and appears a lot in fado songs. It sort of means yearning, but yearning with a strong edge of heartbreak. Yearning so much you can barely stand it.

  • Olfacta says:

    I think it was one of the two leading travel writers — Jan Morris or Paul Theroux — who wrote the phrase you describe.

    I’m American but I love Yiddish expressions. My favorite one is “Schnorrer.” This one word means “the guy who’s always trying to get free stuff without any payback.” Like the brother-in-law who always shows up, unannounced, at dinnertime, but never reciprocates.

    • Francesca says:

      I love Yiddish expressions, too (in NYC most people know at least a couple). One of my favorites is schpilkes, which roughly translates to “pins and needles.”

      • Melissa says:

        I like how Yiddish is tossed into conversations in some regions by people of all cultures. But the same could be said of some Spanish and French words too. Others as well.

    • Marsha says:

      This sounds just like my brother!

    • March says:

      Yiddish, FULL of such words. I don’t know how to deploy them properly.

      • Tara says:

        My favorite Yiddish word is Schmeutz..(I think that’s how you spell it).

        • Louise says:

          The “schm” sequence in Yiddish is so well used-Schmendrick, Schlemiel, Schlagel, Schlomazel, etc. (‘scuse my spelling-my Yiddish is all derived from aural input). There’s such great mouth-fell to Yiddish, not to mention family ties for me.

        • Francesca says:

          What does it mean? Same as schmutz, meaning dirt, such as “You have a schmutz on your cheek”?
          I’ve just started reading a wonderful book called “Born to Kvetch” about the usefulness and versatility of Yiddish for complaining and even cursing in witty and elaborate ways.

          • Tara says:

            Yep…I may have spelled it wrong, but it’s like “There’s schmutz on that shirt so you need to change into a clean one.” It’s a perfect word that exactly describes the “stuff” you need to clean.

          • sweetlife says:

            Love that book, Francesca!

    • lulllull says:

      The swedish word for Schnorrer is “snyltare”.

  • Marsha says:

    March – what a great idea for a post! I’ve always wondered what jolie-laide meant. I sincerely hope a lot of non-USA people respond. I love to watch TV shows made in England and listening to their speech is just a bonus (and to any UK readers, I mean that as a real, sincere compliment). I have the *language is a toy* gene so I will be checking back during the day.

    I do have an expression, I don’t know if it’s widespread or not. I’ve only heard my late husband use it and he said he got it from an old lady who worked at a country store where he grew up. If someone did something inadequately, she would say they did it like they *had a paper ar@@hole.*

    Also, we do live in the south, so that should explain things.

    Nice to see you back – Marsha

    • March says:

      Uh. My mother was from the south. I dredge up the accent when talking to someone with a similar drawl. It frightens my family.

      You share the language is a toy gene? Come back later, look at all the input!

      • Marsha says:

        I plan to!

      • Beth says:

        Hah, March, my mother was too. My grandmother moved the family up here when my mom was in her teens. If I talk to my grandmother, I tend to drawl. So funny to hear someone else does the same. Friends would say “I can always tell when you’re on the phone to your grandmother”.

  • DN says:

    is it the word “dépaysé” in french?

    • Austenfan says:

      It was the one I was thinking of when I first read March’s post. Beautiful word although I wouldn’t know if it quite describes the feeling of the enjoyment of being somewhere else.

    • March says:

      I bet it is!!! Check this out. Okay, somebody’s blog, but they talk about its having positive connotations — to be out of one’s familiar surroundings in a GOOD way.


      • Austenfan says:

        Being the geek that I am I have just looked up dépaysé in my Petit Robert.

        It says: ” Mal à l’aise par changement de décor, de milieu, d’habitudes. Which roughly translates to: Ill at ease as a result of a change of environment, habits etc.

        The definition of “dépaysement en bonne part”: Agreeable change of habits.

        This dictionary dates back to 1990, and language does evolve, doesn’t it?

      • Rappleyea says:

        That sounds a little bit like the saying, “All who wonder are not lost.”

  • Marla says:

    “Un casino” in Italian, or “ha fatto un casino”– it means “a hell of a mess” or “he/she made one hell of a mess” but so much more! Chaos, anarchy, nonsense, disaster, lunacy, covers the whole 9 yards…,my favorite Italian word!

  • DJ says:

    the french word ‘soignee’ is something that has a translation in English, but it doesn’t really capture it.

    ‘elegance’ barely covers it. great topic :)

  • Lilybug says:

    I think elbow grease is a fairly familiar concept in NZ, fwiw.

    I like “robble”. There are other words of similar meaning but it just sounds good. Maybe it’s the childhood memories. My mother is English and it’s part of local dialect from her area (Worcester). It means messed up, strewn, crinkled, tangled. We’d receive our clean, folded clothes and proceed to dump them where they are (unintentionally) unfolded and left in a disorganised pile. This elicits an exasperated, “Looked at all these robbled up clothes!” from poor mum. I like passing the word on to my kids as an interesting quirk of their heritage but my pedant husband hates it.

    • March says:

      Now, see, get your pedant husband on the job. I think we should separate slang (elbow grease, bob’s your uncle, robbled up) from more concise, non-translatable words like duende and schadenfreude, which I probably just misspelled.

    • Gretchen says:

      Your husband is acting like a snob in supposing that his dialect is correct where someone else’s is debased. Who knows, “robble” may be a word of ancient heritage which all English-speakers would use today, if Worcester and not London had become the center of power in England by the middle ages!

  • jen says:

    Duende. A kind of grace some people have.

  • Millicent says:

    Ooh, here’s one of my favorites: natsukashii, which is a Japanese adjective used to describe something that makes one nostalgic for something else. It’s not used quite the same as nostalgic is in English — we’d say we’re feeling nostalgic, whereas in Japanese a person would say something like, “That view is natsukashii,” meaning it brings up a fond memory.

    • March says:

      Oh! That’s a wonderful word. Japanese is a language/culture with a degree of subtlety that I can’t understand the nuance even when it’s explained repeatedly to my face.

  • Daniela says:

    One word I like is in Serbian and it’s “merak”. There really isn’t an English equivalent for it. It’s sort of describes that moment when you sit back and just enjoy whatever it is that you are doing. It’s a specific kind of worry-free enjoyment, and it can be for something as little as wearing your favourite sweater, to having drinks and dinner with good friends.

    I hope you find your word! i would love to know it too, the definition is wonderful.

    • Masha says:

      In Russian, this word tends to mean “hopeless situation”, and a literal interpretation as “pitch black darkness”! And Serbian/ Croatian are Slavic languages. It’s interesting how meanings change over time in various cousin languages.

      • March says:

        Wow, how interesting! The same word with two related but different meanings!

      • maja says:

        in serbian merak is one, and mrak (black darkness) another thing. merak most probably comes from turkish merak which means concern, so quite the opposite :) ah, languages are wonderful

        • BPerf says:

          How interesting! In Bulgarian (another Slavic language), where merak also came from Turkish, it means desire, and usually of the flesh. :)

    • March says:

      That’s a great word. It seems bigger than “pleasure” or “worry free enjoyment.”

      • Marla says:

        I think both languages share the element of “this is way past your control, so you might as well accept and enjoy what happiness you can find in it!”

  • Meg says:

    Well, when extra effort is needed for a physical task, there’s the saying, “Put a little elbow grease into it.” This has never failed to evince an “I BEG your pardon?!” from every non-American person I’ve ever met. I get the feeling that elbow grease is construed as a major American export.

    • March says:

      Think of all the expressions we and other countries have like that (pulling my leg, shake a leg, all our sports slang). We don’t think twice about them!

      My sister in law and I use the Britishism “bob’s your uncle” all the time just because we think it’s hilarious, but nobody ever knows what we’re talking about.

    • Bee says:

      sorry to disappoint you, elbow grease is not a USA exclusive, in Italian there is the literal translation – or original? :) – “olio di gomito”

  • Austenfan says:

    I like Zivilcourage. Which I guess translates to moral courage, or perhaps social courage. As I am neither German nor a native English speaker I can’t be sure of the exact translation. It doesn’t have a Dutch equivalent.

  • Francesca says:

    I hope you find your word! Seems to be a sort of cousin to serendipity: “1.an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.”

    “Jolie-laide” is a useful expression and the women so described are usually quite fabulous-looking.

    “Schadenfreude” is a favorite of mine–I don’t think you can quite translate it as “gloating,” but I guess that’s close. But the English word is very ugly, while the German word sounds like the title of a Schubert lied.

    • March says:

      Love schadenfreude. Here, I’m not going to look it up first, I think of it as meaning happiness at someone else’s misfortune.

  • vizcondesadesaintluc says:

    In French you can use both joli/jolie laid/laide also for fair/unfair. Joli/jolie can also be used to describe something big, important even huge. Joli/jolie can be also nice, kind, gracious, interesting, funny. Laid/laide is used also to describe something sad or a story of evil.


    • March says:

      Thanks. I admire anyone who can speak more than one language competently. I wonder how you ever grasp all the nuance?