Last week I did a repost by Jason Wire on MatadorNetwork listing 20 awesomely untranslatable words from around the world. Since it garnered so much interest, I wanted to revisit the idea and do a little research to come up with a new list of untranslatable words, this time for English.
HERE ARE A FEW examples of ‘lacunas’ whose roots may have derived from other languages, but are inherently 100% English.
Something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste.
Taken from the German word meaning “trash”, leave it to Americans to come up with a new meaning for the word that describes an American taste all its own. So all those velvet Elvis Presley pictures, inflatable neon green lawn chairs and Back Street Boys throw pillow covers with matching curtains are kitsch?? Yup, I’m afraid so. (dictionary.com)
Originally a canned meat-product brand name derived from sp(iced) + (h)am, the term ‘spam’ has come to take on an additional meaning that describes disruptive messages, especially commercial messages posted on a computer network or sent as e-mail. Since the internet is an American invention, it seems appropriate that an All-American product like SPAM should be the catalyst for such a by-product. Of course, America is famous for its processed foods, unlike a lot of other countries, so that probably adds to the difficulty of translating this word properly.
Meaning nonsense or senseless chatter, Poppycock originated in the 1840’s in America. Probably derived from the Dutch dialect pappekak, meaning “soft dung”. The word ‘poppycock’ itself is an autological word (or autonym), whereas it is an example of its definition, making it quite difficult to translate.
Meaning an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident; good luck or fortune. Serendipity originated from a Persian fairytale, The Three Princes of Serendip, and was coined by English art historian Horace Walpole. In the fairytale, the heroes possess this gift. (dictionary.com)
A British term, Bumf is a slang word for ‘toilet paper’ which originated in 1885-90 from ‘Bumfodder‘. This slang took on an additional meaning to define superfluous amounts of paperwork, popularly used by British schoolboys. (dictionary.com)
Slang for expensive and flashy jewelry, clothing, or other possessions or the flaunting of such possessions or the flashy lifestyle associated with it. Originating in rap culture, the word is an onomatopoeia, a sound suggestive of the glitter of jewels and precious metals.(dictionary.com)
Meaning capricious humor or disposition; extravagant, fanciful, or an excessively playful expression. Originating in the 16th century from another nonsense word, ‘whim-wham’ which means generally the same thing.
Language characterized by circumlocution and jargon, usually hard to understand. Ex. The gobbledegook of government reports. First used by U.S. Rep. Maury Maverick, D.-Texas, (1895-1954), a grandson of the original maverick (q.v.) and chairman of U.S. Smaller War Plants Corporation during World War II. First used in a memo dated March 30, 1944, banning “gobbledygook language” and mock-threateaning, “anyone using the words activation or implementation will be shot.” Maverick said he made up the word in imitation of turkey noise. When trying to explain the politics of American government, oftentimes, made-up words are the only way to do so. (dictionary.com)
Actually determined to be THE most untranslatable word in the English language according to a survey that was conducted by Today Translations, a London-based translation and interpreting agency, which asked a thousand of its linguists across the world to nominate the words that they found hardest to translate. The word refers to a person, especially a diplomatic agent, invested with full power or authority to transact business on behalf of another. I’m not exactly sure why this word is so untranslatable, as there are so many synonyms in English (emissary, envoy, etc.), and I would think every country would have a plenipotentiary to call their very own. However, you can’t argue with London-based study. They invented the English language afterall!
Despite the Today Translations survey, I had to reserve the number one spot for this word. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is used as a nonsense word by children to express approval or to represent the longest word in English. This word was made famous from song in 1964 Disney movie version of “Mary Poppins“, but was in existence prior to the movie.
Source: Today Translations, London http://www.todaytranslations.com/press-room/26/most-untranslatable-word