Avva has a thread about words that one knows from one language and feels the lack of in another; he kicks it off by saying that he misses the English noun mind in Russian and Hebrew, the Hebrew word stam ‘simply, just’ (he explains its wide range of uses here) in English and Russian, and the Russian word ved’ ‘you see; you know; after all; isn’t it?’ in English. If you read Russian, you’ll find lots of interesting suggestions.


  1. I actually have the same problem in English and French and sometime end up borrowing the word from one to the other, or making up something similar. One word I wish existed in French is “oblivious” (and the related “oubliviousness”). We’ve got “inconscient” but it doesn’t convey the full extent of the English word. (Somehow “oblivieux” and “obliviété” don’t seem to be caching on…
    Of course, I always prefer to find a native equivalent, but it’s not always possible, is it.

  2. Michael Farris says:

    More than particular words, I really miss the Slavic dimunitives (in all their untranslatable many shaded glory) in English, a pathetic language when it comes to diminutives. With (a very few) Polish people I just import them into English, but it’s not an option most of the time.

  3. I don’t miss an equivalent of ‘mind’ in Swedish. I rather would have writers of English to be more precise. To explain the fuzzy concept of ‘mind’, my 1000 page E-Sw dictionary uses ONE PAGE for that word only.
    To me, ‘mind’ qualifies for my list of words that I find difficult to translate because of their too wide meanings. On that list, I include for example the related terms ‘item’ and ‘assembly’. An ass’y might be made up of items, etc., but it’s a real pain to translate those items into colloquial-sounding Swedish, and I’m no proctologist.
    My Russian is not much better than my non-existent Modern Hebrew, but I get the feeling that the stam case resembles Chinese jiù. That’s sometimes used more or less as a filler, and often, the best way is to leave it untranslated, and in some cases I think it corresponds nicely to English ‘just’, ‘then’, ‘xactly’, …

  4. The Welsh use ‘well’ a lot; and Indian subcontinentals by analogy ‘vail’.
    I’ve also heard Finnish speakers slipping in ‘[ja], just det’ constantly.

  5. I don’t miss an equivalent of ‘mind’ in Swedish. I rather would have writers of English to be more precise.
    Um, you’re surely not under the impression that aside from this, all words in all languages are “precise”? We humans are not precise, logical beings, which is why all languages are full of vague, hard-to-translate words and the many proposed “logical languages” have never caught on and never will. I suspect you have a problem with mind mainly because it’s not native to you. I’ll bet there are equally problematic (from a logical point of view) words in Swedish that seem perfectly natural, in fact indispensible, to you.

  6. This happens constantly to me, but I tend to forget for which words. Just a minute ago I was grasping for an English equivalent of French tardif (“belated” didn’t work in the context). And the other day I spent a quarter of an hour explaining the concept of German Torschlusspanik to a bilingual crowd.

  7. Wonderful topic, lexical lacunae! We discussed it recently on the Lexicography email list:
    There is a mirror of the list messages on the Linguist List site:

  8. I often miss the other Hebrew word usually mentioned in the same breath as stam: davka.
    This word comes ultimately from Aramaic, and was originally popularized by Yiddish. It has a wide range of meanings (e.g. “on purpose”, “for spite”) but the one that I need it for is “because the world is out to get me, dammit!” For example: “My car’s been making funny noises all day, but when I bring it in to the mechanic, davka it works just fine!” or “I have been wallowing in unrequited love for Jenny for years. And now that I’m dating someone else, davka, she becomes interested in me!”
    I suppose the nearest English equivalent is “ironically.”

  9. That “davka” seems pretty close to “ironic”.
    Of course in the Alanis Morrisette sense, no the O. Henry sense.

  10. “I suspect you have a problem with mind mainly because it’s not native to you.”
    I don’t think so, actually. I’ve got the very same problem translating “mind”, “assembly” and the like to dutch and danish.
    Those terms cover way too many concepts.
    Especially in more technical texts “assembly” and “item” are barely more than just another way of saying “thingamabob”.
    Same goes for “mind”: often it is simply impossible to guess from context what kind of mind the writer had in mind.

  11. But the fact that it’s hard to translate doesn’t mean it’s somehow “bad.” I like words that require a page of a bilingual dictionary to deal with. If all words were monovalent and easily translatable, how boring languages would be!

  12. Douglas Davidson says:

    Ironically enough, the natural English equivalent for davka as used above would be ‘naturally’. My car’s been making funny noises all day, but when I bring it in to the mechanic, naturally it works just fine…

  13. Isn’t the meaning of ведь captured well by the conjunction for? You’ve got both the property of introducing an explanation and the vaguely archaic connotations (unless it’s seen a revival in recent times, ведь for me always carries the air of the folk tale).

  14. Margaret S. says:

    How would you say “quedarse con las ganas” in English? I can express it in a very literal, clumsy way as “stuck with only the desire,” but I can’t think of anything better. It refers to when you don’t partake of something delicious (literally or figuratively) either because you can’t, or because you decide, for whatever reason, to deny yourself.

  15. Being able to turn an adjective into a person is something English sorely misses. Funes, El Memorioso and Funes, the Memorious is as close to a match as English can get.
    And παρέα (parea) is another word I struggle to translate. It’s a friendly group of people that come together for a cheeky laugh, kind of.
    And já and ya in portuguese and spanish respectively are fantastic words that I’m hoping will enter the English language via the Hispanic community of the USA.

  16. There’s an Icelandic verb, “nenna”, that’s culturally significant and important that’s near impossible to translate properly. The closest I’ve ever come is to say “I know it’s mildly disagreeable but could you be bothered to do [something] for me”, but that doesn’t quite catch it. Used all the freaking time. There are a few other words that also resist translation, but “nenna” is the one that I find myself wanting to use the most.
    It’s kind of weird when the brain does that.

  17. By “that”, I mean when the brain finds a concept it wishes to express and can only think of it in one language, but not in another.

  18. And kattullus, your use of the “that” reminds me of my favourite language related zen game.
    In Greek, there is no this and that. There is only a thing, called αυτό, so that everything is an αυτό. This and that just don’t exist as separate demonstrative nouns in Greek, and so thinking of everything as an αυτό whilst at the same time thinking that they could be this or that gets me feeling all weird and I head off to one-hand-clapping land.

  19. What I think is a Chinese word which I see showing up in English is “gah”. Probably from kung fu movies. It’s an introductory interjection. I’ve also seen “neh”.
    I have read that ja / ya came into Spanish from Arabic. It seems to fill a lot of the aspectual functions: already, still, yet, etc.

  20. “To me, ‘mind’ qualifies for my list of words that I find difficult to translate because of their too wide meanings.”
    Hm. Maybe “Philosophy of Mind” is a big boondoggle, the way analytic philosophers claim “Philosophy of Being” is.

  21. Margaret: “it wasn’t to be” (literary) or “I/you/he never got to [do whatever]” (colloquial) are two possibilities. Of course, different contexts call for different translations.

  22. One thing I forgot to mention was that I’m reminded of the “most untranslatable words”, from June last year, discussed here and everywhere http://www.languagehat.com/archives/001416.php

  23. Lots of They have a Word for it lists seem to focus on single words for very specific concepts. Maybe because the exoticism is more evident. I don’t know how much real insight into the speakers’ culture one gets.
    Equally interesting are discourse elements, of which a couple have come up already here. Y’all is one, although I say ‘you guys’ myself. n’est-ce pas / nicht wahr / não é / so desu ka is another. An English dialect (parodied by the Bhangra wannabes on Goodness Gracious Me) has ‘innit’. Des von Bladet’s online idiolect uses ‘isn’t it’.
    For me, generalizations seem more profound. Again this has come up here already. For example, a word for “a lemon or a lime (but not an orange or a grapefruit)”. Or “a dog or a wolf”. Color words, pace Berlin and Kay. A word for “red or pink”. Or “green or blue”. Eskimos could have this meme about how Whites have a single word (!) that means [newly fallen snow] or [crusty snow] or even [dusting of snow] but not [sleet] or [hail].

  24. From Finnish:
    “Why lose time and energy saying ‘the committee that takes care of negotiations concerning the truce’ when you can use a simple little word like ‘aseleponeuvottelutoimikunta?'”

  25. Margaret S. says:

    Great discussion! Languagehat, responding to your response to my comment, your suggestions help to explain the expression, but I’m not sure that they cover what we’d say. Confronted with the situations where the Spanish speaker says “Así que me tuve que quedar con las ganas”, we would probably shape the thought in a different way, “Well, anyway, I’m on a diet.” “Well, anyway, I’m married.” “Well, anyway I only had $10 on me.”

  26. Tatyana says:

    Agree with Michael Farris, dimunitive suffixes describe situation/object/attitude instantly and economically; too bad English, being elegantly economical language, lacks them.
    Looks like it has been a popular regret (via Blogchik, Russophile Bloglet)
    There is a dialectical South-Ukrainian word (or rather exclamation?) that is very inclusive : “tju!”. Expresses wide variety in a sentence – from “really?” to “look who’s talking”; generally – disbelief to contempt. Russian and Western-Ukranian (and obviously, English), sadly, have nothing to match it.
    I can always spot fellow – southerner by it.

  27. John,
    I believe Spanish ya is actually a fine old Latin word descended from iam (and even Cicero probably dropped the final m when he was speaking). It also exists in Italian – già.

  28. Balashon on stam. (Unfortunately, the post ends with this bit of nonsense: “And the most fascinating bit of trivia? The English word stem – as in ‘to stem the tide’ – actually derives directly from the Hebrew satam!” The hell it does, it’s from the noun meaning “The curved upright timber or piece of metal at the bow of a vessel, into which the planks of the bow are scarfed; the prow, bows, or the whole forepart of a vessel.” Why would somebody who cares about etymology fall for such obvious bullshit?) (That whole parenthesis results from my careless misreading of the post, which follows it with its own “stam” = j/k. Thanks, Owlmirror!)

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, so an actual stem – a tree trunk.

    Edit: such a detailed story isn’t even necessary. Here’s German stemmen with its Germanic and IE pedigree; sich gegen die Flut stemmen isn’t a fixed idiom, but would be immediately understandable and could already have been coined any number of times independently.

    Further edit: gegen flut stemmen gives 97,700 ghits, the first page involving metaphorical efforts against literal floods.

  30. Yup. The OED says:

    The nautical use occurs (sometimes with differentiated form) in several Germanic languages: Old Frisian stevene (West Frisian stjûwn, North Frisian stēven), Dutch, Low German steven (whence German steven; Middle Dutch had also steve), Old Saxon stamn, Old Norse stafn, stamn (masculine) (whence Middle English stam n.1), Danish stavn, also (? from Low German) stævn, Swedish (? from Low German) stäf.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Vor- und Achtersteven. I’d never have guessed that that’s another mn/vn thing.

  32. John Cowan says:

    I believe it is that old familiar thing, certainly well-known to thee and me: “Post in haste, repent at leisure.”

    But as for stem (the tide), Wikt gives a different story: a ME-age borrowing from ON stemmen ‘stop, dam (up)’, which obviously shares a root with the other stem, but is otherwise confined to North Germanic languages.

  33. It’s one thing to make a mistake, that can happen to anyone. But that’s not simply a mistake, it’s a mind-bogglingly idiotic mistake, the kind you could make only if you knew nothing whatever about etymology. Which is, as I say, odd for an etymology blog.

    I M dum; see Owlmirror’s comment below.

  34. Owlmirror says:


    Balashon on stam. (Unfortunately, the post ends with this bit of nonsense: “And the most fascinating bit of trivia? The English word stem – as in ‘to stem the tide’ – actually derives directly from the Hebrew satam!”

    The font on the site is rather small, so maybe you missed the last line, which comes right after that. That line’s context is explained earlier in the post.

    Hameyvin yavin . . .

  35. Argh, I totally missed that, and I take it all back! Thanks.

  36. Owlmirror says:

    Long, long ago, I saw an Israeli comedian whose routine included the use of “staaaaaaam”, with overemphasized long, drawn out, somewhat singsong tones, and amused sly smugness. I cannot remember the comedian’s name, but on seeing the word in the post shown that way, I immediately “heard” his voice saying the word.

    Thinking about it some more, I perhaps recall a couple of parts of his routine that were linguistically relevant:

    1) The use of “la” to express disbelief. “La”, in Arabic, of course means “no”. But as he explained it, if someone tries to prank you, and you are skeptical, you can say “la” — not drawn out, but in tones of amused disbelief, to demonstrate that you reject what is being claimed.

    2) How idiomatic phrases make no sense in translation. The only one I recall is “lama mi ata?” — literally “why who are you?”, but the actual sense is “who do you think you are?” (which of course makes no sense translated literally either).

  37. 2) But it translates great into Russian “Ты кто такой? – А ты кто такой?”

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    Maybe as translated out of Russian in the first place?

  39. Owlmirror says:

    I didn’t find anything (yet) on “lama mi ata”, but I did find a balashon post about another Hebrew idiom, “ma pitom”. Since the phrase is analyzed as being a calque from Russian via Yiddish, and Russian is practically the second official Hattic language, I offer relevant quote from the post and from the comments thereunto.

    Literally, ma means “what”, and pitom means “suddenly”. However, “what suddenly” doesn’t make much sense (in English or in Hebrew), so we need to find the origin of the phrase. Rosenthal writes that it is a loan translation (calque) from the Yiddish vos plutsem וואס פלוצעם and the Russian chego vdrug. I asked some Russian speaking friends about chego vdrug, and they told me that:

    The best way to translate this phrase is probably “why all of a sudden” or “why now”
    chego in this case is why
    vdrug: at this moment, suddenly

    So an original meaning of “Why suddenly” makes more sense. As far as the Yiddish, vos means “what” and plutsem is “suddenly”. (It comes from the German plötzlich, meaning “sudden, abrupt” which derives from platzen, “burst”. This is the source of the Yiddish word plotz – “to burst, explode – from strong emotion.) However, the meaning is clearly, “why suddenly”.

    But! The comments offer some quibbles (I selected a few that seemed relevant, and took the liberty of editing them a bit for clarity and link-fixing):

    seems like the Yiddish expression is a back translation from Hebrew. At least I’ve never heard it and the guys here either.
    Google gives just one relevant hit. I wonder what Rosenthal’s sources might be. By contrast the Russian “chego vdrug?” or “chego eto vdrug?” is pretty common (but being somewhat rough they are not nearly as common as מה פתאום).
    Sunday, March 01, 2009, 12:37:16 PM

    Generally you do a great job, but here your Russian (and possibly your Hebrew) is quite a bit off the mark. Pozvol’te — permit me: “Chto v drug” — “How/Whazzis, all of a sudden? ” “Chego” is a genitive case formation from the word (nominative) “Chto” — meaning, exactly, “what”. More properly, “Chto v drug” would be the Russian expression if it were to be on the lips of Russians. “Chego” is a rusticism, used vulgarly in place of Chto on occasion (often by country-folk in the big city), due to the partitive use which occasionally accrues to the genitive case (cf. French “je voudrait du the”, “I would like some tea”, or even Hebrew “ten li min ha-adom ha-zzeh”). But you will never hear either “Chto v drug” or “Chego v drug” in the mouth of native Russian speakers — it is purely Odessit, from Odessa , where the form is “Cho v drug”, or “Sho v drug”. Cho or sho (the latter more, er, Odessa) can sometimes be confused with the genitive, as the g in chego is always pronounced like a v in Russian, and in Russian the v has a tendency to be pronounced between the two lips and phonetically elides – Chevo –> Chewo –> almost Cho. But Cho is actually nominative, and it means “What”, not “Why”. As I mentioned Cho v Drug is purely Odessa . Like half the slang of Odessa , it is Jewish Russian. So, what we most likely have here is a Yiddush calque, nothing more, nothing less. Now, there is a fair old amount of Yiddush or Hebrew in real Russian (slang generally) which passed through the port of Odessa most likely through the Jewish criminal jargon there (cf. Isaac Babel and his Odessa tales). The following is just a small list with the Russian meanings:
    Csiva – Document
    Pots – Just like in Hebrew
    Khokhma – A wiseacre joke
    Shmon – a police search (reportedly, cells were turned over during 8:00 am lineup, although this may be folk etymology)
    There are many more. But we should not be satisfied to go to the Yiddush, as you have done. Because… and here is, I believe, the crux of the matter, the Yiddush vos plutsem is itself most likely a derived usage,… from the Hebrew! Now “Ma”, in Hebrew, has several meanings… the most common meaning, what. But there is the common Semitic* device of the “ma” of surprise —- “ma tovu ohaleykha Ya’aqov” — “How well were your tents done up, Jake” (sorry). Here, the “ma” means “how”. And this “ma” of surprise shows up in another place. The Haggada, where in the “four questions” we would actually have 5, except the first one doesn’t count… “ma nishtanah ha-llayla ha-zzeh”… “How different this night is from all the other nights!”. So now we have a background for Yiddush to use the “ma” of surprise, and in what better context than a Hebraic construction
    … “ma pit’om” —- “How sudden!”. To translate this as “why”? Ma pit’om! *I *think* that this is attested to in the Arabic, as well (unfortunately I have been living in Moscow for 10 yrs and my Wright is still in London, but you can find it there, probably right after the Ma al-Hijaziy, if memory serves — can anybody out there say?).
    Monday, March 02, 2009, 7:05:50 PM

    I think that Philip is thinking of what the Arabic grammarians call “ma il-ta`ajjubiyya” (Wright I 98). The use of this “ma” in Arabic is limited to very specific constructions, and is interpreted by the native grammarians as either a 3m.s. af’ala perfect or the elative (af`ala). It’s also worth pointing out that the interrogative mah is not regarded as common Semitic, since it is not found in Akkadian or Ethiopic, both of which use forms based upon *min(t)-. Interrogative mah is now seen as characterising proto-Central Semitic. However, Early Akkadian does occasionally use ma in expressions of doubt or disbelief. See John Huehnergard, ‘Features of Central Semitic. Biblical and oriental essays in memory of William L.Moran’, ed. by Agustinus Gianto, 2008,
    Friday, March 06, 2009, 10:55:09 AM

    Dave (Balashon)
    I sent an email about this question to Keren Dubnov of the Hebrew Language Academy, who’s also an expert in Russian and Yiddish. Here’s her reply:
    ליידיש ולרוסית ואחיותיה דיאלקטים וסוציאולקטים רבים. בעידן “התחייה” של העברית השפיעו מאוד ניבים מערביים של רוסית ואוקריינית. הם שונים מןו הרוסית המדוברת המודרנית. נראה לי שבעיקרון הטענה צודקת: השיח הסלווי והיידי אזורי הוא ההשראה ליצירת “מה פתאום”. בכל זאת ברוסית מודרנית מצוי
    shto/chevo-eto vdrud ,
    אבל נפוץ יותר באותו עניין
    s kakoj stati.
    (My translation): Yiddish, Russian and the related languages have many dialects and socialects [dialect determined by social factors rather than by geography]. In the renaissance of Modern Hebrew, there was much influence of phrases from Western Russian and Ukraninan. They are different from those in Modern Russian spoken today. It appears to me that the claim is correct: The Slavic and local Yiddish expression were the inspiration for “ma pitom”. In any case, in spoken Russian we find “shto/chevo-eto vdrud”, but it is more common to find “s kakoj stati”.
    As I’m not a speaker of Russian or Yiddish, I think I’ll rely on Dr. Dubnov. In any case, it would be interesting to see early examples of the phrase in both its Hebrew and Yiddish forms.
    Friday, March 06, 2009, 11:33:21 AM

    I fear that Dr. Dubnov is not correct, first in that s kakoy stati has a rather different implication, more like the Hebrew “minayin lakh” only much much more coarse, something like the English “where do you get off with that”? Close, but not the elative surprise of mah pit’om or sho vdrug! Moshe hit the nail on the head — the Arabic parallel to this mah of surprise was indeed the ma il-ta`jubiyya. I really do appreciate your finding it — it is like a visit from an old friend. Ma ahsanta! 🙂
    Friday, March 06, 2009, 7:32:28 PM

    “Suddenly” in Yiddish is פלוצלינג; I’ve never heard of פלוצים. But the expression I hear all the time is וואָס מיטאַמאָל.
    Thursday, December 23, 2010, 5:08:50 PM

    Zackary Sholem Berger
    פלוצעם and פלוצלינג are variants. However, I have never heard וואס פלוצעם from the mouth of a native Yiddish speaker – not sure how much that means. Stutchkoff does not list the phrase in his thesaurus which is pretty
    comprehensive (try searching for “plutsem” at this link)

  40. Very interesting, thanks for that! (Also, it was smart of you to leave a placeholder comment with a link to a pastebin file of the comment you wanted to post; it made my life easier. I don’t know what Akismet did with it, but it wasn’t in either the moderation queue or the spam file.)

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Akismet probably nuked it from orbit, because that’s the only way to be sure a long comment with lots of non-Latin letters and three links doesn’t see the light of day – although it isn’t that long, there isn’t that much non-Latin text at least proportionally, and three links are well below the limit…

  42. That’s quite a discussion. I have no idea who stole “why now?” from whom, but Philip is quite wrong to confine “chego” in the sense “why” to Odessa. Maybe it’s where it came from, but it is now a common Russian word (of sub-literary/colorful variety) in addition to perfectly standard genetive of “chto”.

  43. I can also confirm that I have heard chego “why” as well as chego eto vdrug, chego on /ona vdrug etc. many times from Russian speakers, as far away from Odessa as Almaty and Tashkent.

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