Words With No English Equivalent, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 1 2011 @ 6:22pm

A reader adds another word to the list:

My favorite would be staircase wit, or "L'esprit de l'escalier" in French. It means to think of a witty response to someone after the moment has passed. It happens to me all the time! I typically prefer to conduct arguments over a Facebook comment thread so that I can have ample time to come up with the best response. Perhaps other readers should send in words from other languages that they know and don't have an English equivalent. It would certainly be a better list than the one you've linked to.

I'd also like to point out that there IS an English word for that list's 2nd entry – "the phantom sensation of something crawling on your skin": formication


Turkish has a verb ending, which I will call (because of orthographical constraints) the "-mish" suffix. This isn't a word, but rather a grammatical construct with no direct equivalent in English.  When a verb ends in "mish" it indicates that the speaker/writer does not have first-hand knowledge; this is usually translated as "reportedly" or "apparently".  As soon as you hear someone say "gelmish" (he/she came), you know that the speaker doesn't know this from experience or observation; he is reporting something that someone else said or experienced. It's a tremendously useful grammatical feature.


My favorite is the Spanish-Mexican word "Tocayo." It is only used by people with the same name. So that one person named Ricardo might call another person named Ricardo "Tocayo." My sister – who knew I had an interest in such words – told me about the word after naming my nephew after me. He has been "Mi Tocayo" ever since.

However, the most interesting thing I found in the post you linked to was in the comments section:

One of my favorite foreign words is rather simple. It’s the German “doch”. It simply means yes, but to a negative question. For example, the question, “You aren’t going?” in English. If you answer “yes”, it is ambiguous (“yes, you aren’t going”, or “yes, you are going”). Doch removes that ambiguity. It always means (in this case), “Yes, you are going”.

Ever since I was young – this issue has bothered me. In 6th grade basketball one of my coaches once said, "You don't like me, do you Jernigan?" I was immediately stumped – knowing on the one had that if I said "No Sir" (which to me meant I was denying the claim, and did like him) – it would likely be misread as ""No Sir, I don't like you." But "Yes Sir" just seemed wrong. (Yes – I have very clear recollection of all this going through my head at once.). Anyway – I went with "No Sir". To which my coach said, "Good, I don't like you either." This, of course, was followed by laughter from the entire team. Then everyone had to run laps – except me of course. I certainly didn't like him after that.