11 Untranslatable Words for Happiness From Around the World

CarlosDavid.org/iStock via Getty Images
CarlosDavid.org/iStock via Getty Images

You know that feeling you get when you listen to your favorite song? Or the feeling you get when somebody cancels a meeting? You’d probably categorize both as happiness, but they’re not exactly the same emotion. And, while there are plenty of English synonyms for happiness—such as joy, pleasure, cheer, glee, contentment—none of them really capture either feeling with much precision.

In his new book, Happiness—Found in Translation, psychologist Tim Lomas creates a road map for identifying various types of happiness, filled with words from other languages that don’t necessarily have English equivalents. In addition to expanding your mental lexicon with beautiful vocabulary, Lomas argues that learning words to describe different feelings can actually magnify the feelings themselves. “Generally, the more awareness and understanding we have of our emotional lives, the greater our well-being,” he writes.

Happiness Found in Translation by Tim Lomas book cover image
Amazon

Expand your emotional literacy with 11 of our favorite happiness terms below, complemented by illustrations from Annika Huett.

1. Shinrin-yoku (Japanese)

Happiness Found in Translation - Shinrin-yoku
Annika Huett

“Forest-bathing.”

Going for a walk in the woods can sometimes clear your mind just as well as a good meditation session. There’s no English term to capture the restorative effect of immersing yourself in nature, but the Japanese call it shinrin-yoku.

2. Charmolypi (Greek)

“Sweet, joy-making sorrow.”

The best word we have to describe how you feel while celebrating the life of a loved one who recently died or waving goodbye to your toddler on their first day of school is probably bittersweet, but that doesn’t convey the depth of that peculiar happy-sad emotion quite like charmolypi does.

3. Fjaka (Croatian)

Happiness Found in Translation - Fjaka
Annika Huett

“The sweetness of doing nothing.”

In a society that champions the ability to multitask above all else, not trying to check the next item off your to-do list can seem overindulgent or even counterproductive. But if you do manage to surrender your whole mind and body to not doing anything at all, it can feel almost euphoric. Croatians call this all-encompassing relaxation fjaka.

4. Pretoogjes (Dutch)

“Fun eyes.”

Have you ever met someone whose expression made you feel like you were in on a joke, without even knowing what the joke was? You might say they had a twinkle in their eye, which the Dutch call pretoogjes, or “fun eyes.”

5. Sólarfrí (Icelandic)

Happiness Found in Translation - Solarfri
Annika Huett

“Sun holiday.”

In Iceland, employees are sometimes granted an unexpected day off to enjoy a warm, sunny day. Though sun holidays might be uncommon in the U.S., we’re well-acquainted with the nameless joy of unexpected freedom—many people experience it when their social plans get canceled.

6. Tarab (Arabic)

Happiness Found in Translation - Tarab
Annika Huett

“Musically induced ecstasy or enchantment.”

Though the specific songs, emotional reactions, and reasons behind those reactions may vary from person to person, being moved by music is a universal experience—even babies sometimes cry when they hear certain songs. In Arabic, this sense of losing yourself in the music is called tarab.

7. Sprezzatura (Italian)

“Nonchalant effortlessness.”

Often, as in the case of a ballerina’s grand jeté or Johnny Depp’s unruly lock of hair in 1990’s Cry-Baby, seemingly effortless grace is only achieved by years of practice (or gobs of hair gel). The ability to make something look so beautifully careless through careful study is known as sprezzatura in Italy.

8. Mamihlapinatapai (Yagán)

Happiness Found in Translation - Mamihlapinatapai
Annika Huett

“A look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire.”

A glance exchanged between two people who share a desire but are each hoping the other will make the first move is so full of nuance and complexity that we unsurprisingly haven’t come up with an English word to describe it. The Yagán people of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and Chile did not have a similar issue—they named it mamihlapinatapai.

9. Etterpåklokskap (Norwegian)

“After wisdom.”

Mistakes, however dumb they may make us feel in the moment, are one of the best ways to learn and grow. Etterpåklokskap perfectly describes the grounded, enlightened feeling you get when you know exactly how to handle a situation because you’ve seen it (and screwed it up) before.

10. Engelengeduld (Dutch)

Happiness Found in Translation - Engelengeduld
Annika Huett

“Angelic patience.”

The saint-like grace with which mothers react to just about everything that their kids do, from spitting up on their new blouses to throwing tornado-level temper tantrums in supermarkets, definitely deserves a special term. The Dutch call it engelengeduld.

11. Orka (Swedish)

Happiness Found in Translation - Orka
Annika Huett

“Requisite energy for a task.”

Completing a task isn’t always just about having enough physical energy for it—you also have to care enough to actually expend that energy. You might have orka to throw a surprise birthday party for your best friend, but you might not have orka to study for a quiz that probably won’t affect your final grade.

Reprinted with permission from TarcherPerigee. Get a copy of Happiness—Lost in Translation for $13 from Amazon.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER