Being Bilingual: Words I like from other languages…

One of the best thing about being bilingual is being able to pick and choose le juste mot – to say exactly what you want to say. Some of the greatest words in language relate to how people think and see the world, so it follows that some things just can’t be said “right” in other languages. Sometimes the word is there, but under-used, and sometimes it isn’t there at all. Technically, this goes by the fancy name of “code-switching” and often is criticized as *laziness*. Personally, I think it is just being savvy about how your languages work, and being dedicated to meaning over form.
As I was making dinner tonight, I referenced (to my English-speaking husband) that something was “polyvalent”. I thought it was the perfect word for the situation, he thought it was foreign… turns out that it does exist in English, but obviously isn’t used as much, which is why he didn’t recognize it. In fact, it’s rare enough that WordPress doesn’t recognize it either, and keeps trying to change it to “prevalent”.
So I decided to make a little list of my favourite words from other languages, words that I can’t imagine living without.

“se changer les idées”: This is an expression that refers to doing something different to change how you feel about something. Like going for a walk to stop worrying about the football scores.. or some other important French-type event. I use this all the time, in English, because it often expresses what I need to do…

“lekker”: This fabulous Dutch word is often translated as “yummy”, which is true, but can be added to all manner of things: “lekker auto”, “lekker boots”, “lekker weather”, and so on. Really, just an all-purpose positive modifier.

“(uno) poquito”: Is there any nicer way to say “a little (bit)” – it sounds exactly like it means!

“gezellig”: The actual translation is “cozy” but it is also used for nice experiences or particularly pleasant times with people you like.

“Gesundheit”: Just “Bless you” in German, but it sounds so much better. In fact, it almost sounds like a sympathy-sneeze (and yes, it is better than the Dutch equivalent gezonheid).

“l”esprit d’escalier”: You know when someone insults you, and you can’t think of a thing to say… until you are walking away… this is the French “spirit of the staircase” – when you find the perfect retort, just too late. How do you say that in English?

“mi amor”: It may not be known as the language of love, but Spanish does this right. In so many other languages we call the people we love strange things: cabbage, baby, doe, duck, angel, bear, hen, sweetie, honey… and even (in Dutch) little fart… but the simple and sweet “mi amor” gets me every time.

“bellisimo”: It’s wonderful, and it sounds wonderful. What more is there to say?

“aye”: I love the Gaelic “aye” – why would you want to say boring old “yes” when you could say “aye”?

And finally, a word that I use in English, that isn’t actually a word, but should be:

“ept”: If one can be inept, then why can’t one be ept? I’m using it, and hoping it catches on…

These words are of course limited to languages I am familiar with – feel free to share your favourite words from your language, or words your kids use across languages!

PS. Thanks to the mostly-English speaking husband for inspiring this post.

11 responses

  1. This post is awesome. My favourite word is “olging around” (or olgaing around, not sure about the correct spelling, or as my husband said it in German: “rumolgern” means to sit cuddled up on the sofa, holding a mug of tea in one hand and a book in the other.

    1. What is “olging around”? I like the sound of it!

      1. It means, as I said in the comment, to sit cuddled up on the sofa, reading a book and drinking tea (comes from my name, Olga and is one of my very favourite activities)

      2. Oh – I thought that was the definition of your husband’s word – I didn’t realize they both meant the same thing!

  2. I love this post! I’ll probably use the “esprit d’éscalier” for that kind of situations. It perfectly makes sense! I also use “lekker” pretty often and instead of “un poquito” I use the Italian “poco poco”, which, for me, expresses what I mean (as much as the opposite “tanto tanto”). I use many terms from the languages I know. From Dutch: “gezellig”, “lekker” and “groetjes” (I say it often when I am on the phone with friends at the end of the call…), then I like the “etepetete” (which comes from “être peut-être” and is actually an expression used in Berlin…) which can be described with “being prim and proper” (when my girls play princesses etc.) and Italian “casinista” to describe when someone is a bit noisy, rowdy. And there are many more… A really great topic, Eowyn. I think I’m going to write a vocabulary of my favourite expressions, just for fun, for my kids and my family. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Thanks! I like “poco poco” too – didn’t know that one. Have fun writing your list, I could have had more but didn’t want to be too wordy…

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. It’s so true about it being great to become aware of different notions that exist in different languages. I teach French at university and the expression ‘l’esprit d’escalier’ seems to keep cropping up in discussions at the moment. When I asked a class to give examples of French terms that did not have a direct equivalent in English, one of the students mentioned it. Then, only a few weeks ago, it was mentioned by a speaker at a more general modern languages event that i was attending.

    1. It’s such a great expression, and although English is a much wordier language, we just don’t have anything as eloquent as “‘l”esprit d’escalier” for this situation…

  4. Hello everyone! I’ve loved reading your posts for a while, but this one has inspired me to comment. I don’t know if you know it, or have already read it, but I think you would enjoy reading both “The Etymologicon” and “The Horologicon” by Mark Forsyth, the brains behind the Ink Fool blog

  5. Here is the link to the Inky Fool

    http://blog.inkyfool.com/

    Etymologicon, Horologicon, and his new book (a present for me from le père Noël….) are all shown on the blog

    1. And now they are on my Christmas list too… thanks Chris. I have a real love of the history of the English language, and at one time thought of making a career out of it. But alas, not very practical… but I still enjoy books like these.

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