Part of the beauty of learning a new language is coming across words or phrases that have no direct translation in your first language. These, in turn, can widen your understanding of languages and cultures in general, and show you some of the limitations of your mother tongue.
While translating and localising these little language quirks can sometimes pose a real challenge and keep the brains of translators busy, they can also provide insight and enrich the process. In some cases, these tough-to-translate words even become loanwords. Just think of the German “zeitgeist”, which has no English expression and was implemented to evoke a complex idea with only one word.
10 UNIQUE SPANISH WORDS WITH NO DIRECT ENGLISH TRANSLATION
In this article, we will focus specifically on the Spanish language. Spanish is full of words that have no direct equivalent in English and can only be described using multiple words or are simply untranslatable. Sometimes this is due to grammatical differences, while other times cultural distinctions can come into play. Whatever the case may be, it is rewarding and fascinating to pay attention to these little linguistic oddities.
To give you some examples and to illustrate this phenomenon, we’ve compiled a list of 10 Spanish words without a direct English translation. So, open your mind and get acquainted with a world of new words, idioms, and ideas.
Let’s start with an expression specific to the Hispanic culture. It is typical for the Spanish to socialise a lot with family or friends, especially after a meal. “Sobremesa” describes this time (which can last several hours) in which conversations take place as everyone is digesting their food, and perhaps a little coffee is had. In these hectic times, there could be something to learn from this more conscious and slowed down way of social interaction and sharing a meal.
We all remember this from our school days or our time at university: A paper is due the next day and you work the whole night to get it done on time. Conveniently, Spanish has one word to describe something we require multiple words for in English: “stay up all night to get something done”. Though, “trasnochar” can also mean to stay up late to do something enjoyable, e.g. to watch a film or any other kind of fun activity.
Spanish has many words that can be used to easily describe physical features. This is an area where English could benefit, as it is just so much easier to say “manco” than “one-armed man”, for example. Another common example of this would be “tuerto” (“one-eyed man”).
Speaking of simplifying things, wouldn’t it be great to have one word to say, “someone with the same name as me”? Spanish has such a word. With “tocayo”, you can easily refer to someone that shares your first name.
“Anteayer” is another phrase unique to the Spanish language. What if you wanted to tell somebody about something that happened the day before yesterday? Anteayer puts this whole time concept into one single expression.
Sometimes the process of translating it into English can be challenging, as Spanish has many words without a direct equivalent.
If you know someone who is quick to shiver and reach for the blanket or an extra pair of socks, you now have a word to describe their condition. “Friolero” means someone is sensitive to cold, with cold not only referring to the weather but also drinks or food.
People who are really into fashion will understand the distinct feeling you get when wearing a new outfit for the first time. Indeed, in Spanish, “estrenar” means “to wear something for the first time”, but it can also extend to “use something for the first time” or “break something in”. However, this word has many more connotations that are sometimes hard to grasp for English speakers; you will find it in film premiere announcements as well.
In English, we have the phrase “going out for coffee”. But that phrase normally entails more than coffee itself. Usually, said coffee is accompanied by a slice of cake, a biscuit, or some other snack. The Spanish “merendar” incorporates all of these possibilities into one word. Most often, a Spanish speaker would use “merendar” to refer to a little snack enjoyed by children in the late afternoon or early evening, such as some cookies with a glass of milk.
We all know that grandma who loves to hug and give a big, sloppy kiss, or that pet that almost seems to fight for affection, or that one friend who is always a little too physical. “Mimoso” is the perfect word for describing anyone that enjoys being given affection—or constantly wants to give affection—in the form of physical contact.
We close this list with one of the most beautiful, yet most difficult, Spanish words to translate into English. An expression used mostly in Spanish poetry, “duende” describes the indescribable feeling a person can experience in nature. More specifically, it captures a certain kind of fascination and magic that is not limited to nature but can also extend to music, for example. Duende is a feeling of wonder and inspiration, an overwhelming sense of beauty and magic. Wouldn’t that word be a marvellous addition to the English vocabulary?
MAKE ENGLISH MORE INTERESTING BY INCORPORATING THESE SPANISH PHRASES
So, make use of these little areas where languages can really benefit from each other. If it is extremely complicated to describe a specific concept, situation, or object, or to say something quickly with just one word, incorporate expressions from another language to fill this gap, like with the aforementioned “zeitgeist” example. Before you know it, a linguistic oddity can become a loanword.
It can be really rewarding, and also fun, to find new and convenient ways to express ideas and feelings. In this way, you not only expand your vocabulary but your mind as well.
If this article sparked some interest in you to learn the Spanish language, you should check out these Spanish idioms to improve faster and communicate like a local.