Five Untranslatable French Words I Wish Existed in English
Last month I shared a few Greek words I learned during weekly phone calls with my yiayia, some of which didn’t have an exact translation into English. It got me thinking about what words I used in French that couldn’t be translated into English, either. To me, the idea of untranslatable words is interesting because it’s pretty wild to imagine that a word or feeling you know and understand in your own language might not exist in the same way in another language.
And I’m not the only one who wonders about this. Tim Lomas, a researcher and positive psychologist, is also really interested in the magic of untranslatable words, but specifically those that related to happiness and well-being. He conducted research in over 144 different languages to find these untranslatable words around the idea of happiness because he was driven by the hope that learning these new words could help us better understand the idea of well-being as a whole, specifically from a psychological standpoint.
In his illustrated dictionary, “Happiness Found In Translation,” he shares a ton of words from around the world that describe experiences of happiness that don’t have a direct equivalent in English. He shares words like like bazodee, a Creole word used in Trinidad and Tobago to describe “a dizzy and dazed happiness, a bewildered, discombobulated joy,” and χαρμολύπη (charmolypi), a Greek word for “the sad, joy-making sorrow when happiness and sadness intermingle.” In French, he included phrases like joie de vivre, or a pure joy that comes with simply being alive, and coup de cœur, which literally translates to a “knock” or “bang” of the heart that means something similar to love at first sight, but a love at first sight you can have for things like a new apartment to a cool car.
Reading through his French words reminded me of a moment in one of my favorite podcast episodes where an American expat who lived in Japan for ten years talks about the Japanese word “mendokusai,” which doesn’t describe happiness, but another feeling completely. She describes it as, “something between ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘I don’t want to do it’ or ‘I recognize the incredible effort that goes into something, even though it shouldn’t be so much of an effort.’” This translation really intrigued me because this exact idea exists in French and it’s called la flemme. It made me wonder what Japanese and French culture had in common that made them need a word like la flemme and mendokusai, and what was so different about American culture if we could live without it in our vocabulary?
I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question, but I think that’s what makes these untranslatable words all the more interesting. So, keep reading to learn more about la flemme, and four other words I wish I could use to express myself when speaking English.
If you only know a few French words, I’m sure you know how to say “yes,” or oui. But, you might not know the word si. Oui can be used in any circumstance. You can use it to reply to a question, to shout “yes!” when you do something great, or to disagree with someone. But, si can’t be used in all of the same ways. It is only used to contradict someone. For example, if someone told you you couldn’t do something, you could choose to respond “Si, I can do that” instead of “Oui, I can do that.”
The reason why I wish si existed in English is because to me it makes sense to have different versions of “yes,” especially one that stresses the fact that you’re disagreeing with the person.
2. La Flemme
If you’ve learned about French slang, you might have heard of la flemme or un flemmard. The closest translation to la flemme is really similar to mendokusai and means to be too lazy to do something or if you’re from the U.K. it’s similar to CBA (can’t be arsed). The reason why I’d like to have an excuse like la flemme is because instead of being something you are, like lazy, it’s something you have like the common cold. I’ve heard students who claimed they couldn’t do their homework because they had la flemme.
If la flemme existed in the U.S., I can imagine my teenage self telling my mom I couldn’t stop watching Netflix to clean my room because I had a horrible case of la flemme.
Un lézard in French is a lizard, so lézarder literally means to lizard, but it’s translation is something similar to bask or laze around. I am of the belief that there cannot exist enough words to talk about lazing around because it is one of my favorite activities.
4. Avoir un coeur d’artichaut
This phrase literally means to have an artichoke heart. It isn’t used as commonly as some other French phrases, so when I heard it for the first time I was really interested to know it’s meaning. I eventually learned that can have multiple meanings including being a hopeless romantic, being someone who falls in love easily, and being someone who is sensitive or cries easily. I like this word because it seems to pinpoint a very specific type of person, someone who you could maybe describe with all of those terms.
5. Avoir la banane
If you have an artichoke heart you might be more likely to experience sadness, but if you have the banana you’re the opposite. To avoir la banane means that you’re happy, but with a huge smile on your face. I like this one because there are certain forms of happiness that might leave you simply content or calm, but if you have the banana you’re so happy that you’re grinning.
Overall, even if you’re someone who has an artichoke heart, I hope this post leaves you feeling like you have the banana. ☺︎