I am clearing out some of my old books.  I am giving some away to charity, some to friends, and some I am clinging to like my life depends on it.  They will have to prise The God Of Small Things, The English Patient and The Other Hand (to name but a few) from my cold, dead hands.  But with each book I pick up and flick through before deciding its fate, I am remembering.  Where I was when I read the story, what it taught me, how far I’ve come.  

Bookcase from Carlton Hobbs Provenance.  In case anyone’s stuck for my birthday present…

In January 2006 I read Happiness by Will Ferguson. It fuelled my conviction that I was never going to be a 9 to 5-er (er…hello 24-year-old Anna.  Well, this is awkward.  Sorry about, you know, still working 9 to 5.  But…you went to Lebanon!  You write lots more now!  You married an Armenian! (go fetch your atlas).  You finally saw the Smashing Pumpkins live!  Does that count?)  The book brought up many interesting ideas, but my favourite part of it was a thread running throughout entitled “The Untranslatables”. Words that other languages have that refer to concepts in English for which we simply do not have a single term.

German is a treasure trove of these wonderful words, because it is a langauge built on logic, on sense, on rationality. When I was younger I adored “der Ohrworm” (an earworm) which denotes those songs that you hear on occasion and simply cannot get out of your head.  Or “die Handschuhe” (hand shoes) which means, you guessed it, gloves.  Although we do have a term for that, so ignore that one. Upon growing slightly more pretentious I fell in love with “die Schadenfreude“, of course; happiness and pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune.

But there are three particular words that Ferguson discovered that are, simply, untranslatable in their beauty. 

1) The Mayans have a word. Mokita. It directly translates as “the truth which no-one speaks”. The tacit agreement amongst people not to refer to shared secrets.

2) The Japanese have what is probably one of the most beautiful words I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning. (Apologies for incorrect characters.  I’m no doubt offending kanji purists). Mono-non-awaré. “The sadness of things”. The ever-present pathos that lurks beneath the surface of life.

3) And probably the saddest of them all comes from Russian.  (Again, apologies for lack of Cyrillic, and no doubt terrible translation). Razbliuto. The feelings you had for someone you once loved, but now do not.

I had pencilled something into the margins of the book which took me a while to decipher.  And when I did, I laughed.  If only I could sit my 24-year-old self down, and tell her “listen, you’ll marry the guy, and one day have the luxury of getting annoyed with him because he didn’t fold the laundry properly, and life doesn’t have to be tragic to be interesting, okay?”

“Summer 2005 started off being flecked by inescapable mono-no-awaré, which I put down to a sad yet inevitable razbliuto which became decay, despair and an irreversable sense of mokita.  Then my mono-no-awaré reached unprecidented levels and rendered my mokita futile. And then I realised that my razbliuto wasn’t quite as straightforward as I’d imagined.

And then I realised I was fucked.”

Nothing quite like an English word to get that certain je-ne-sais-quoi across. Si?

Categories: Books, Written By Anna
13 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Posted January 31, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Brilliant. Anna you're writing as always is brilliant.

  2. Posted January 31, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Anna I love you, and your 24-year old self. Brilliant. I once wrote an essay debating that fuck is one of the greatest words in the English language, for its incredible versatility.

    K x

  3. Posted January 31, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Ooh, OK I have a new one for the list:
    HYGGE (pronounced "HOO-guh")

    It's a Danish word and it basically sums up what I've been searching for my entire life – a combination of peace, comfort, trust, company, warmth and wellbeing… but so much more than all of that. I met a Danish man last year who also told me (to my great delight) that you can apply it as an adjective too, so things can be Hyggele (pronounced, rather wonderfully, "HOOG-ly").

    You blog, Anna K, is extremely Hoogly.


  4. Posted January 31, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Hoogly…..officially my new favourite word!

    Brilliant writing as always Anna!


  5. Posted January 31, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Penny that word is AMAZING! I also like the German weltschmerz, which translates as world weariness: heavy, but good to spit out when everything just feels like it's too much and the Victoria line is off AGAIN.

  6. Posted January 31, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I have to say, 'fuck' might be one of my favourite words. Amongst a host of favourites, true, but up there nonetheless.

  7. Tom
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    There is a rather excellent book called 'The Meaning of Tingo' which is full of untranslatable words from other languages. Tingo itself means 'to borrow objects one by one from a person's house, until nothing more remains'.

  8. Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I'm going to try and use "hoogly" in a sentence today.

    K x

  9. Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Tom – I *need* that book.

  10. Zan
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I've just looked up The Meaning of Tingo on Amazon – it's going on the list…

    Great post Anna!

  11. Posted January 31, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Zan – great minds think alike – The Meaning of Tingo will be up on the AOW Amazon book store (link on the right) from this evening…

  12. Mahj
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I love words. From Mokita to fuck!


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  • By Weekend Wonderings on February 29, 2012 at 8:57 am

    [...] got books that get talked about in the comments, like Tom’s fabulous suggestion on Anna’s post ‘Mokita’We’ve got books mentioned in the ever popular ‘Books that made me, me’ series,And [...]

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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