Untranslatable words

Sarah Lindon David Hayes
7 July 2004

Untranslatable Words has moved, you can now find the latest word in our columns and on our frontpage.

  • Menna Elfyn – Welsh, glas
  • Alma Kushova - Albanian, besa
  • Misaki Kamouchi - Japanese, sakura
  • Zsuzsanna Ardó – Hungarian, pertu
  • Herpreet Kaur Grewal – Punjabi, kapkhana
  • Sara Forsstrom – Swedish, lagom
  • Nazila Fathi - Farsi, taarof
  • David Short - Czech, pohoda
  • Caroline Bhalla - Southern Californian, dude
  • Nicola Wissbrock - German, Wirtschaft
  • Juliana Sokolova - Slovak, Podie’ sa
  • Menna Elfyn, Welsh poet


    I could have chosen hiraeth, an over-documented word about longing that the Welsh like to “show off”, with just a hint of superiority. It can’t be translated, we shout (or should I say whisper); and yet every language has its own flavoured word for “longing” or “nostalgia”.

    As a 1960s language activist I saw it as being synonymous with our “fate” as a people, never getting rid of the shackles of servitude and inferiority. To be Welsh was to see things in “negative”. That’s why I’d much rather go for glas.

    Glas is packed with resonances, and has the ability to create different worlds. As a literary word it is a powerful double-edged word that is brimming with meanings. To start with it can mean “blue”, but it can also mean “green”. It can mean raw, fresh as newly-formed buds in spring, or “blue” as in “skimmed milk”. (Anybody acquainted with the sight of a fresh pail of milk will attest to its “blue” appearance.) The sea too can be azure or pale. The frisson of sea is often thought of when thinking glas, blue.

    But glas in Welsh can also mean “white”. Confused? You should be! It can mean to gleam, to dazzle and sparkle. We say yng nglas y dydd (in the blue of the day) to mean “early morning, just after dawn”. It is blue, is it not, or is it gleaming with the freshness of a new day and morning’s twilight?

    In early Welsh poetry, glas meant youth – llanciau glas – very much like the idea of “greenhorn”. But it could also signify “death”, and paleness would be used to describe those lost in battle.

    We also use glas for thoroughness. To do one’s very best would be gorau glas (blue best). Then there is that blue smile, glas wen, a smile full of insincerity and mocking.

    The vein of light-coloured slate is also “blue” and its hue is never more acute than when the rain falls on the slates of north Wales, with its rainbow effect.

    A dozen meanings, then, for just one small word. It’s also a word in “old” Irish and other Celtic languages. And writing in a language which is still endangered, it gives me strength to know of all the rough-diamond edges it presents. And yet, I keep away from using it to mean “death” and “mortality”. Far better to think of it always as a word that gleams and shines, just like the splendour of writing through it a “new dawn”.

    Alma Kushova, Albanian student journalist


    The Albanian word besa is usually translated in English as “faith”, “trust” or “oath of peace”, but its truer meaning is “to keep the promise”. The word first gained prominence in the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini – an assembly of customary codes and traditions made by this 15th century chieftain that, over many generations before and since, was inherited and transmitted verbally. Many of the Kanun’s rules – which governed everything from marriage and pasture rights to hospitality and the gjakmarrjë (blood-feud) – are respected even today among the extended families of mountainous northern Albania.

    In the Kanun, the besa is described as the highest authority. It is closely related to the notion of honour, so essential to personal and familial standing as to be virtually a cult; it lies so near to the heart of Albanians as to be referred to in documents as an example of “Albanianism”.

    The “man of besa” connotes a man of respect and honour, someone to whom you can trust your life and family. His opposite is besëçartur (the man who breaks besa) – with a sense not merely of unreliability, but even of craziness and banishment from the community. A man unable to save his besa is worth nothing.

    Besa also draws on biblical notions of the word as the foundation of human society: “In the beginning was the word”. From medieval times, Albanian society was ruled by the word or promise given. All human relationships – in family, community, village or ethnic area – were governed by the promise, and the responsibilities it entailed. Besa is the moral testament of Albanians since the appearance of its earliest national and social mythologies.

    The Kanun says: what is promised, must be done.

    The song-cycles, language, folklore and literature of Albania are replete with stories about and references to besa. One ballad describes the result of a besa’s violation: a woman is chosen for sacrifice by having her body entombed in the structure of a castle in order to ensure its impregnability. Rozafa castle near Shkodër is associated with this story.

    There are also many old sayings:

    • Besa e shqiptarit nuk shitet pazarit (besa can not be sold or bought in a bazaar)

    • Shiptari kur jep fjalen therr djalin (an Albanian can sacrifice his own son for besa)

    • Shqiptaret vdesin dhe besen nuk e shkelin (Albanians would die rather than break besa)

      Besa e shqiptarit si purteka e arit, etj (the Albanians’ besa is worth more than gold)

    Albania’s foremost modern novelist, Ismail Kadare, bases his novel Kush e soli Doruntinën (“Who brought Doruntina home”) on an epic ballad about a brother’s resurrection so that he can return the body of his sister to the family home.

    The writer Fatos Lubonja, noting that the novel echoes a Byzantine myth that carries a moral warning against exogamy (“marrying out”), argues that Ismail Kadare adapts the tale in a way that depicts the besa “as a superior institution that Albanians needed in order to keep themselves united against invaders”.

    In the ballad, the daughter of the family is married in a distant country, in a promise of friendship that would enable her seven brothers to fight the Turkish foe. The youngest brother, Kostandin, had promised to bring her home to see their mother, but he and his six brothers die in battle.

    The mother cries at Kostandin’s grave, condemning him to eternal unrest for breaking the besa. On the night he had promised to retrieve his sister, he rises from the grave and travels to her. She is unaware he is dead. They ride across mountains on a single horse to reach home. He leaves her at the door and returns to his grave. Mother and daughter embrace, but when the daughter says that Kostandin has brought her home, they die together in agony.


    Misaki Kamouchi, Japanese



    Sakura, with five petals of pale pink, is the national flower of Japan.

    The appearance of sakura, cherry blossom in Japanese, is the sign of spring. The bare trees in winter start to have hard buds that swell gradually as the spring approaches.

    “The cherry blossom front is advancing northward”. It is the common phrase in the weather forecast in springtime. We follow the charts, which tell us when the blossoms are going to be at their best in each area – from the south of Japan, in March, to the north, Hokkaido, in May. Hanami, viewing flowers in Japanese, means viewing sakura straightforwardly in our mind.

    At any park or riverside in spring, people enjoying a picnic under the cherry blossoms will be seen. Packed groups of families, friends and work colleagues joyfully share songs and exchange drinks. It is said that the custom began in rituals of dedication to mountain gods more than a thousand years ago. During the Edo period (1603–1867) its ritualistic aspect gave way to a more sociable flavour. Hanami became a popular event, as all kinds and classes of people, from rich to poor, enjoyed eating, drinking and performing farces under sakura trees.

    A different meaning defines sakura as a claque or decoy – a person who, for example, from within a crowd attracts customers to a sale or auction. This use of the word might derive from the fact that wherever sakura blooms, people will gather.

    The seasonal aspect of sakura lends itself to association with the cycles of life. Sakura can be the name chosen for girls who are born in spring. The word sakura can be used to describe the colour of the cheeks, lips and nails of small children or young girls, which are fresh and naïve like fragile petals.

    Sakura is often associated with newcomers to schools or companies (the school year, and the careers of all new graduates in Japan, start in April). Almost all schools have cherry–blossom trees near the school gate. The scene of new students wearing fresh uniforms entering the gate under the blooming cherry blossoms is a typical image at this time of year.

    Most university entrance examination results in Japan are announced in February–March. Until new technology rendered the terms obsolete, students who lived far from their chosen university and who could not come to see the results displayed on a notice–board were informed by telegraph messages with the legend: “sakura bloom” and “sakura fall”.

    The image of sakura has been evoked in poems and songs for over a thousand years. But its connotations to us are not only sweet and lovely. It carries also the sense of mono–no–aware, the evanescence of life that has been one of our aesthetic senses.

    The real beauty of sakura is the way the cherry blossom petals fall like snowflakes. They bloom rich in pageantry but, after a few days, start to cascade with a good grace. At one time, this image suited and echoed the spirit of samurai. Because of their ephemeral beauty and the way they fell manfully, sakura also had the image of a dignified death. “Falling like sakura” was used as a metaphor that suggested dying honourably in wartime.

    One spring, I visited Chidori–ga–fuchi riverside, one of the famous viewing–spots of cherry blossoms in Tokyo. After relishing the cheerful atmosphere of the pink–petalled riverside, I visited the nearby war museum. In contrast to the merry scene outside, the museum’s interior was dark and dull, and the wars seemed to me ancient events of far away.

    Then, among the exhibited mementos of the second world war, I found the letter of a young soldier from a tropical battlefield, addressed to his mother. With polite caring words to his mother he was wondering if the cherry blossoms in their hometown had already bloomed. When I saw the line, I felt close to the soldier and shared a vivid soul with him that penetrated my heart. He was after all a Japanese who saw the same sakura. Suddenly the distance to the past lifted.

    The word sakura can bring us memories and thoughts. The memory may be of a season in the past you spent with someone who might not anymore be with you; the thought may belong to someone who has lost health and wonders if he or she will be able to see the next sakura with loved ones.

    With such individual experiences and a shared sense of belonging, the eternal transience of sakura lives and grows in our hearts.

    Zsuzsanna Ardó, Hungarian writer and translator



    Igyunk pertut! Let’s drink a pertu!

    Hungarians sometimes exclaim Igyunk pertut! with gusto, often in the middle of a conversation. But pertu is not the kind of drink you can order at the bar. In fact, strictly speaking, it is not a drink at all. Moreover, drinking may not even be involved.

    Confused already? Welcome to Hungary!

    Pertu is a ritual, a bonding experience, much like treaties signed in blood must once have been. It signals the sincere, or strategic, desire for friendship between people and formalises their decision to be more familiar with each other, in the first instance in language.

    The pertu ritual can be quite fun. To start, it can entail swallowing your drink (preferably though not necessarily alcoholic) “bottoms up”. But in its full, authentic, traditional version, it requires the partners to lock arms while imbibing their respective drink. The celebration of informality, also an ingenious excuse for extended and intimate physical contact, culminates in smacking kisses on each other’s cheeks.

    What lies beneath the whole pertu business are the subtleties of Hungarian thinking and the intricacies of its social hierarchy. The offer of pertu, or the request for it, acts as a symbolic social leveler. While it explicitly sanctions informality, implicitly there is more at stake: the shared recognition of a degree of social equality. It may be only symbolic, but this collapse of interpersonal hierarchy can be tricky to sustain; couples may even oscillate between formal and informal language – the equivalent of the French tu and vous – in order to play with levels of intimacy in their relationship.

    Pertu is thus a window into the Hungarian system of status markers in social relations. It may not look elaborate when compared with (say) Korean, Thai or Japanese; but among Europeans, we Hungarians have a rather sophisticated linguistic system for keeping or reducing psychological distance, imposing or refusing inequality or intimacy.

    The most simple mode of address is Te, the familiar and informal second-person singular (tu), but it is complemented by two formal (vous) forms: the rather brusque-sounding Maga and the much more polite Ön. Their plural versions – Ti, Maguk and Önök – add a further layer of glorious complication.

    The fact that informal, pertu terms and “first-name” terms (which are actually “last-name” in Hungary, where the surname precedes the given name) may not coincide makes Hungarian public life even more veiled. A colleague’s permission to call him Paul reduces some of the social disparity but does not necessarily lead to pertu. This mode of address is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be on pertu terms.

    It is wise not to consider offering pertu to anyone if you are clearly younger, of lower status, or if you happen to be a woman. But if you are on the other side of these categories, you might vary Igyunk pertut! with Tegeződjünk? (“Let’s be on pertu terms, shall we?”) or even the somewhat imperious Nyugodtan tegezz! (“Do call me te!”) If you fear a slight, or permission is not forthcoming, you might make the request cautiously explicit: Tegeződhetnénk? (“Could we call each other te?”). Meanwhile, if you try to avoid making a decision about the social hierarchy and psychological distance in a conversation, the results can be hilarious – and in Hungarian the attempt is, ultimately, impossible.

    Beware, however: if the pertu is not mutual, it is called csendőrpertu (“gendarme pertu”). The name implies seriously feudal social relations – as used to be the case when authoritarian figures (police, parents, teachers, clergy, employers) sprayed pertu around unilaterally.

    But if work is a maze, personal relationships can be a minefield. The judgment of whose right and responsibility it is to initiate pertu conversations is a delicate one. Its labyrinths preoccupy and befuddle Hungarians themselves (and pose creative challenges to translators). Consider: at what stage is it appropriate for romantic protagonists to switch to tegezés (“saying te”) – before or after the first drink, the first kiss, or the first lovemaking? The language’s conjugation gives away the form of address, hence the degree of familiarity the speaker, or would-be lover, assumes. The Hungarian heart is branded on the tongue.

    Igyunk pertut!

    Herpreet Kaur Grewal, British Punjabi journalist



    I was at an Asian wedding recently where there was no alcohol and a friend sitting at the same table remarked: “I want to go to a Punjabi wedding, at least they know how to have a good time!” A Punjabi wedding is likely to have a full dance floor within the first five minutes, plenty of whisky and red meat. A typical Punjabi tends to be extrovert with a voracious appetite for the finer things in life like eating, drinking and dancing.

    The Punjabi people of northern India and Pakistan trace their history to the Aryans, in one source called nomadic warriors, who settled in the region because of its fertile farmland. Whether their passionate, flaring temperament derives from martial origins or from a linkage (as in another theory) to Mediterranean cultures such as the Greek, it can be summed up in one word: kapkhana.

    As a fluent Punjabi-speaker myself, gatherings like Punjabi weddings often bring kapkhana to mind. Its rough translation might be “useless noise” or “madhouse” but its practical associations go much wider than this suggests.

    Kap translates directly as “noise”, khana as “compartment”. Thus, kapkhana refers to noise (and therefore nonsense) concentrated all in one place. Variations of the phrase include bakwaaskhana (talking nonsense), kothkhana (dog-nonsense; this word is particularly crude and communicates extreme disapproval). The phrase ghusselkhana describes a small, cramped enclave (hence khana) in Punjabi Indian villages where people wash. In some rural areas it could even be used to urinate in.

    The way kapkhana is spoken is important. I grew up hearing my Dad say it in a throwaway manner but with an undercurrent of agitation – even anger. The word can be used to describe a situation one has lost patience with; a Punjabi-speaker who thinks someone or some people are making a song and dance about nothing may say: “what’s all this kapkhana

    I’ve always liked the word and it has suited my dry but boisterous wit well at times. When my two aunts, my Dad, my uncle and I were stuck in a traffic jam in the Punjab a while back, I exclaimed: “what kapkhana this is!” My aunts laughed at my sudden outburst and asked where I had learnt that expression. I pointed at my Dad and he looked slightly sheepish but amused. The phrase was coarse but it had its own charm when a “mannerly” girl like myself used it.

    The word also connotes the way in which many Punjabi males tend to talk over each other, as if they are brawling with words. (Virility means a lot to the Punjabi male and some Punjab-based rural sports prove the point; one event revolves around who can survive a tractor being driven over them). But Punjabi women can equal, even surpass, their male counterparts in tumultuous verbal exchange – among other things. Punjabi weddings sometimes witness a ritual called sithnia where someone from the mother’s (nankai) and father’s side (dhadkai) of the bride or groom’s family engage in a half-joking sparring-match over which family is superior.

    At my brother’s wedding in India, this was vividly demonstrated between my quicksilver aunt who has a knack for the rapid-fire comeback and my uncle, with the booming voice, who had met his match; their encounter revealed an amazing exchange of witty energy which exemplified the vibrant, down-to-earth and often humorous feel that Punjabi culture has – although others watching may well have thought it was nothing more than kapkhana.

    There is an industry of Punjabi films which are largely driven by repartee of this sort. Their language has a bounce and liveliness that infuse phrases sounding very ordinary in English with a new lease of life.

    Punjabi is sometimes called a plebeian language compared to the supposedly more refined and harder-to-learn Hindi. I would disagree. Punjabi can be rough but it has its own freshness, wit and vitality – all evoked by the word kapkhana.

    Sara Forsstrom, Swedish journalist


    swedish house

    The lack of extremes in the Swedish language and culture is epitomised by the excessive use of the untranslatable word lagom.

    In a country where everyone is worth the same, hierarchies are non-existent, inequalities erased, it is not good to stand out. Everything – and everyone – is supposed to be just lagom.

    Anders Svensson was born in 1962. He was politically active as a student; left-wing, as was the norm in traditionally socialist Sweden. He is now married and has two children, a boy and a girl; a lagom size for a family. His wife Lena is a teacher. Pelle is 17, with two years of school left to decide what to do next. Anna is 14, and good at football and maths. Anders has a sales position in an IT company, a 9-to-5 routine.

    Anders started to play golf only in his 30s, when the IT boom was in full swing and it was all right to display a lagom amount of success. The family has always had a Volvo, and Lena now uses a little Toyota also. They live in a Stockholm suburb, in a modest but comfortably-equipped house with a garden. It is a lagom arrangement.

    Anders tends not to get very excited over anything. Lena finds his emotional equilibrium comfortable; his character is lagom. One could call the family happy though they would not use that term themselves. Not that they are unhappy, but things could of course always be better.

    Lagom does not mean boring.

    It means rather “not too much and not too little”, “not good and not bad”, “not big not small”, “ok”, “just right – though not perfect”.

    Lagom is a way to avoid clear answers and decisions:

    “How much of the cake do you want?” “A lagom piece.”

    Lagom is a way to stay transparent:

    “How many years have you been doing this?” “Lagom many.”

    Lagom is a way to show ability to conform; whatever you think is right, is fine with me:

    “I’m sure it is lagom like that.”

    Untranslatable? Yes. Thinking to be precise and explain something very specific, the word actually means nothing. It is weak and meek, it is cowardly, it is a non-statement.

    And it is cherished.

    Anders Svensson lives a lagom life in a lagom country where, collectively, everyone agrees that Sweden is best.

    Nazila Fathi, Iranian journalist


    As part of my work, I once accompanied a prominent visiting American journalist to interview an Iranian MP (who was later to become minister of information). At the end of the interview, the MP offered an invitation: “please come to my house.” The journalist, who had been told that the best way to learn about Iranian politics was to be welcomed into people’s homes, accepted with enthusiasm.

    But the truth was that the MP did not really mean to invite us to his home. Like many Iranians in similar situations, by trying to be polite he was attempting to show the extent of Iranian hospitality. He was, in fact, displaying taarof.

    I had to intervene and explain to my American friend that the invitation was not real; I told him that he should thank the MP and accept the invitation only if it was insisted upon - in other words, if the taarof became more serious. But the MP did not insist.

    Taarof is an aspect of routine cultural behaviour among Iranians, used in their daily interactions with old and new acquaintances alike. It is a hollow system of flattery and false modesty to make others feel good; often, a practice of polite dissembling, where people express nice sentiments that they do not truly mean or feel.

    Iranians are not offended by taarof. In fact, a person who fails to engage in the system of taarof stands out as a person unfamiliar with Iranian culture and traditions.

    Taarof governs different aspects of social life. It may come into play when a host offers food to the guest. The system of taarof may demand that the guest declines politely, another form of taarof, waiting for the host to say taarof nakonid, which might be rendered as an emollient “don’t do taarof.” The exchange of taarof over this simple matter can go on for a long time. Taarof can be very tricky.

    A friend of mine recalls that he once took a foreign friend on a shopping expedition and momentarily left him alone in a shop while he parked his car. As he returned to the shop, he saw the foreigner being followed by the shopkeeper who was shouting and pointing: “thief, get the thief!” The shocked foreign friend explained that he had asked the shopkeeper for the price of a cap he wanted to buy, and the man had replied: “be my guest.” He had not realised that the offer was just a taarof.

    Indeed, offering something to one’s companion is a common taarof. If a person takes the item, Iranians say taarof amad nayamad dareh (“one may fall for the taarof and accept your offer.”) But if the person who has offered the item changes his mind about handing it over, he may tell the other that it was just a taarof shabdolazimi (a “fake taarof”).

    A famous expression highlights Iranians’ keen awareness of the layers of meaning the word can convey, including a duplicity in their own behaviour: ze taarof kam kon va bar mablagh afza (“reduce from taarof and add to the quality”). When people go out of their way to perform taarof, the phrase suggests, they not only drive others crazy, but evoke suspicion that their flattery is merely based on hypocrisy.

    Taarof, in short, is an inescapable part of the patterns of courtesy, deference and consideration for others that are integral to Iranians’ social life. The following joke reveals not taarof exactly, but something of the shared culture out of which it flows.

    Some years ago, a woman in a remote village went to see the doctor. She had been expecting a baby, but the baby was a month overdue and there was no sign of its arrival.

    The doctor pondered, and advised her to wait.

    A month later, she went back to see him. She was really worried by this time.

    The doctor sighed, and said: this is a puzzling case – I think you’d better go to Tehran to see a specialist.

    After a long bus journey, with lots of bumps but no signs of life from inside, she arrived in Tehran where a gynaecologist at a maternity hospital inspected her. We need to X-ray you, the doctor said.

    The pregnant woman waited, even more worried. Finally, the doctors came in with the results. They projected them onto a screen. Inside the womb could be seen…twins. One was saying to the other: befairmaid (“After you…”), and the other was replying: “Nah, nah, befairmaid… ”).

    David Short, scholar of Czech


    spring in Prague
    courtesy of Ben Hays - www.brhphoto.com

    The Czech word pohoda can keep a translator awake at night. Along with its derivatives pohodový and pohodově it has irritated me for about twenty years. It is not that it is in the strictest terms “untranslatable”, but that it has expanded rapidly to cover a range of meanings requiring different translations in English, while evidently remaining one and the same word to the Czechs themselves.

    Until that twenty-year old epiphany I had barely heard it. I knew it from literature and it was in standard monolingual dictionaries but as a bookish expression it stayed on the edge of my awareness. Since then, its meaning has ballooned from denoting primarily “pleasant weather” or a “pleasant atmosphere” - and metaphorically an agreeable state of mind and/or body, well-being - to a colloquialism conveying all manner of pleasant, desirable, suitable, or simply good states of affairs.

    While its pleasure seems to have flourished for the Czechs, it has caused my translatorly satisfaction to dwindle.

    Pohoda’s primary 20th century sense has generally carried the superfluous automatic epithet příjemná (pleasant) or, often, krásná (beautiful) unless it is qualified by some other adjective, such as jarní (spring). There is no direct, one-to-one English equivalent. In the common metaphorical sense the word indicates a range of possible translations; many of these carry an atmosphere of interiority, suggesting that the addition of the adjective duševní (mental, of the soul) might also be superfluous, though the phrase duševní pohoda does have an ideal equivalent in “peace of mind” (already, then, miles away from pleasant weather).

    The utterance To je pohoda once equated to (crudely) “What lovely weather” or “What a lovely day”, but today it may be used of almost any situation or place that evokes the same sense of pleasure that such a day or weather might. In its most up-to-date sense it conveys an assurance that things are either ideal or couldn’t be better (“That’s great”, “Everything’s fine”). The same is true of the expression To je v pohodě, which comes closer to “It’s okay”, “Don’t worry”, “No problem”, not to mention – for its truncated form V pohodě – my least favourite English response, “Sorted!” (where has the weather gone now?).

    In fact, V pohodě, as used by media folk (and those who would imitate them), may mean little more than “yes”, “great”, “excellent”, “obviously”, “you’re welcome”; its inglorious blossoming (along with pohoda itself, and pohodový) since November 1989 has not escaped the murderously aquiline eye of Vladimír Just, who in his Slovník floskulí (Prague, 2003), lambasts all the worst excesses of latterday Czech political and journalistic newspeak.

    The inflation of the word’s meaning is further reflected in the adjective pohodový and the adverb pohodově, which appear in a dictionary of recent Czech neologisms by Olga Martincová and others.

    Josef Fronek has made an admirable attempt to capture the range of meanings of pohodový; his own Czech-English dictionary entry offers in the first sense: “pleasant, lovely, enjoyable, [slang] swell, super”, and in the second: “(of a person) level-headed, calm, unruffled, [colloquial] unflappable, cool”. At which point it becomes clear that perhaps “cool” - in its modern sense, covering a wide range of things, persons and situations - is the nearest single equivalent for pohodový.

    “Cool” itself, like pohoda if not so intimately, is a word widely associated with weather conditions. (This also makes the recent widespread slang intrusion of cool into teenage Czech thoroughly redundant. Similar meteorological associations may also attach to the English “fine”, though not to the long-established Czech fajn.) For pohodově, Olga Martincová offers meanings translatable as “pleasantly, unhurriedly, calmly”, while Fronek offers “calmly, unhurriedly”.

    Meanwhile, this linguistic flux has created a pohoda-related oddity. The Czech language makes available the negative prefix ne- for verbs, adjectives and nouns [hence dělat/nedělat (do/not do), zajímavý/nezajímavý (interesting/uninteresting)]. But the analogous form to pohoda – nepohoda - merely means “bad weather”; it has been stranded as a purely lexical negative, totally untouched by all that has happened to its non-negative sister.

    For English-Czech dictionaries it is hard to see how the frequency and prolificity of pohoda or variations of it might be truly conveyed. My own calm escapes me.

    Caroline Bhalla, American researcher


    surfer dude

    Southern California is worlds away from other regions of the United States. And dude is a southern Californian word that can be translated only with difficulty, even for other Americans.

    Dude is symptomatic of the laidback attitude associated with Californians. This may in part come from the sunny weather – as the Albert Hammond / Mike Hazlewood lyric goes, “it never rains in southern California”, and the temperature ranges from a cool 65 degrees to the low 90s throughout the year. There is traffic and some hustle and bustle in the region, and smog on the roads. But the freeways are wide, the cars are new, the people are tanned, and the fresh, clean beaches attract throngs of people who want to lay-out, play volleyball, or of course, surf. The atmosphere is informal, the dress is casual – and the people are never on time (“There was traffic, dude”).

    The word has clearly spread far beyond its home territory, not just geographically but in public argument – from Andrew Sullivan’s 2001 article Dude, where’s my drug policy? to Michael Moore’s 2003 bestseller Dude, where’s my country? But much as I’d like to believe that all of America shares the love of dude, it is really a west coast word – as in “surfer dudes”. Who’s ever heard of “city dudes”?

    In its southern Californian heartland, dude can mean so many things.

    Dude is a person. The earliest definition of dude – a word that appeared in print only in 1878 – was “a man excessively concerned with his clothes, grooming and manners”. It has since become synonymous with guy, or gal. Usually, dude means a younger man or woman, but there can also be older dudes. Dude works as a label for most people, though not all of them. For example, you could say about your boss, “That dude is a real tight wad”; but you wouldn’t really say to your boss “Dude, can I have a raise?” Well, you could, but you probably wouldn’t get one.

    Dude is a friend, but in certain circumstances can also mean foe. When one friend calls another, you are likely to hear “Dude?” (with a raised inflection on the last part of the word), to which the friend might reply, “Dude! It’s me!” In that instance, dude expresses familiarity, friendliness, and a certain amount of happiness. But if the context is an unhappy one, dude may not mean friend. Like, walking through a bad neighbourhood, one person may remark to another, “Dude, those were some mean looking dudes

    Dude is also an exclamation. The sentiments that dude can express are seemingly endless. How does a listener know which dude means what? It is all about inflection and context. For example, if a person wants to express happiness, they can say “Dude!” (DEW-wood). If a person is irritated and wants to tell his friend no way, the dude will likely be much shorter, “Dude, no way” (did, no way).

    To express extreme excitement or even surprise, Dude can be elongated to flow over several syllables, for example, “Doo-hooo-hoo-d” where each progressive “hoo” becoming shorter and shorter. I don’t think dude is expressed in anger very often. Though, followed by “come on” it can become a bit forceful, as in, “Dude, come on, you are really getting on my nerves. Stop saying dude

    Nicola Wissbrock, German

    German businessman

    Die Wirtschaft

    My German-English dictionary naturally doesn’t think that die Wirtschaft is untranslatable. It proposes: economy; industry and commerce; business world.

    The third definition here hints at a dimension that is central to the German usage of the word yet lacking in the other English near-equivalents.

    Take the sentence Das ist gut für die Wirtschaft, which could be translated as “That is good for business/the economy”. Yet where the English expressions are firmly grounded in the material world, die Wirtschaft carries the added connotation of a human collective.

    This aspect is much more prominent in the next example, illustrating a very frequent usage: Die Wirtschaft fordert Investitionen in die Bildung (Business calls for investment in education); here, Die Wirtschaft clearly works as an abstract agent.

    But who exactly forms this mysterious collective? The connotation is of a group of men (invariably men) in suits – business captains, yet also trade union leaders, who in consensual German fashion are both the opposition to and a sub-set of this group; industrial participation laws mean that union leaders are also board members of all big corporations.

    When die Wirtschaft is well, Germany is well. This goes beyond simple economic affluence. The central role of die Wirtschaft in post-1945 Germany contains two different national narratives, and hints at the tentative possibility of a third.

    After the war and the disaster of National Socialism, die Wirtschaft was the only thing (West) Germans could safely take pride in, apart from football and beer (whose own Wirtschaft connection appears below).

    It was also what West Germans put their faith in. For a supposedly pragmatic and materalistic concept, die Wirtschaft has some curiously religious undertones. Die Wirtschaft, like a deity, is both concept and person; it comes complete with its own miracle (das Wirtschaftswunder, post-war German economic success), its apostles (die Wirtschaftsweisen, the economic wise men), and its hallowed symbol, the Deutsche Mark.

    It also provided a certain absolution. Wirtschaftsmacht (economic power) somehow seemed to be a more acceptable and civilised version of power than its military equivalent. That die Wirtschaft was complicit in Nazi crimes such as forced labour was conveniently forgotten for a long time.

    When the student protesters of 1968 opened that wound, it shook the foundations of West German society. The hysterical reaction by the authorities and the tabloid press went some way towards a radicalisation of politics that included the emergence of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) in the early 1970s. When the RAF abducted and later killed Hanns-Martin Schleyer in 1977, they were targeting not only the leading Wirtschaftsfunktionär but also the former ardent SS officer. Only now, another generation later, are attempts being made seriously to investigate the crime of forced labour and to compensate the few remaining survivors.

    Mostly, though, this dark shadow was suppressed in the national psyche of the 1949-89 Bundesrepublik that had die Wirtschaft at its core. Then, die Wirtschaft was a slightly stern, authoritative, paternalistic, but ultimately benevolent force with our national best interests at heart.

    In the 1990s, this perception started to change. Reunification and worldwide economic forces rather brutally propelled Germany out of its comforts and into harsher social climes. In the age of globalisation and the Euro, die Wirtschaft and its leaders ceased to be solely national, and as a result they are regularly accused of a lack of patriotism – a word not easily employed in German – when (for example) they propose to outsource production to cheaper markets abroad.

    From a West German perspective, the secure, rather parochial existence of the Bonn republic that could find its national identity in die Wirtschaftsmacht gave way to the exciting, confusing, febrile Berlin republic – where die Wirtschaft is in disarray and polarisation seems to be succeeding traditional consensus politics.

    Die Wirtschaft still occupies a central place in German minds, precisely because the economy is faltering, but the reunited Germany needs to find fresh sources for its national identity.

    Meanwhile, there is always football and beer. For die Wirtschaft can also describe the equivalent of the English pub or American saloon bar – a shortened form of die Gastwirtschaft (literally “guest business”, and a nice example of the German language’s capacity to join two words to make a new one with a different meaning).

    The German Gastwirtschaft might be very different from its Anglo-American partners, but you can at least be sure that German beer far outperforms the current German economy. So for your next Wirtschaftswunder, go to die Wirtschaft.

    Juliana Sokolova, Slovak researcher

    weeping woman

    Podiet’ sa

    The verb podieť sa is not a word or a concept that somehow captures the “spirit of the nation”. It does not convey a unique Slovak characteristic. Yet its usages in popular tradition and in present-day Slovakian reveal an inner linguistic life that render it, in effect, untranslatable from the language of this small central European country.

    Podieť sa, a soft-sounding word characteristic of the Slovak language, gathers force from folklore.

    A woman had three sons and a baby daughter. One day, the boys were meant to look after their little sister and accidentally tipped her out of the cot. Just then their mother walked in. Overcome with fear for the baby, and anger at the boys not helping with her chores, she threw a curse: “I wish you would turn into ravens, you!”

    In an instant the three took on the form of these black birds. They opened their beaks in surprise, only to find themselves no longer able to speak in human tongue. They fluttered their wings, circled over their small village home and flew off towards the deep forest where they disappeared from sight.

    When the mother saw the effect of her unthinking words, she tore at her hair in despair over the power of a word.

    Podieť sa is not the mother’s powerful curse itself, but rather – in the future form of the verb – the word she employs to express her despairing state of mind over the loss of her sons. In some versions of the story, the woman laments: Kam sa ja nešťastná teraz podejem? (“where will I, the unfortunate one, find rest now?”, or “what will happen to me now?”)

    The entry for podieť sa in the lexicon of the Slovak language lists two meanings:

    • to disappear, to get lost: as in “our dog got lost” (Pes sa nám kamsi podel)
    • to find refuge, shelter: as in “she doesn’t know what to do/ where to hide/ where to find a refuge/relief from her pain” (Nevie, kam sa podieť od bolesti)
    In its first meaning, the word can be used of a thing that has gone missing, with the reflexive pronoun sa hinting at some mischievous movement of its own. Indeed, when the father of the cursed sons comes home at night and wonders where the boys have gone, he may be using the very same word, podieť sa.

    In its second meaning, the word is most often used in the negative: “I don’t know where to…” (Neviem, kam sa podieť), or in the form of a question: “Where will I now…?” (Kam sa ja teraz podejem?).

    Both uses indicate a kind of lack, of being at a loss. This can be lack of refuge in the physical sense (the lack of a home or shelter from the weather), or it can reflect a state of mind (a confusion about where to go in this world, where to find shelter from affliction, what to do with oneself or how to make this pain go away). Like the woman who lost her children and did not know where to seek comfort, so great was her sorrow.

    In my mind the word evokes the gesture of clasping one’s head in one’s hands, accompanied by the sound of a woman wailing, lamenting her (or someone else’s) fate; in particular by a village woman wearing a traditional headscarf. Amid the flow of her tears she cries, now towards the heavens, now to the people of her village: Kam sa teraz podieť?

    The word can have an archaic ring, but it has adapted to modern circumstances well. When used by members of a homeless family to describe their situation, both layers of meaning are present: the lack of physical shelter and the desolation of finding themselves in such a hopeless condition.

    The use of podieť sa indicates that a person (or a thing, or animal) has lost its bearings, is torn out of the normal flow of events and thrown into confusion and despair.

    How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

    Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

    Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

    Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

    Hear from:

    Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

    Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

    Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

    Josh Rudolph Fellow for Malign Finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

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