Food & Culture

These English Words Don't Exist in Other Languages

We've told you about a couple of words that don't really exist in English, but it got us thinking about words for which the reverse is true. Of course, when you're looking for words that don't exist in English, you can look through all the other languages. But if a word exists in one and only one language, it's more than an outlier — it's downright bizarre. Fortunately, English is a pretty bizarre language. Here are the words that don't really have an equivalent in any other tongue.


The challenge in finding unique words in English is that so many of our words are derived from other languages in the first place. So you've got to find the ones that aren't. Believe it or not, "serendipity" (meaning something like "a beneficial effect achieved through coincidences") was basically conjured up from nothing.

The English word for the country of Sri Lanka used to be "Serendip," which was a garbled version of a Sanskrit term meaning "Dwelling Place of Lions Island." In the 1557 story "The Three Princes of Serendip," the titular royals get into and out of trouble by, you guessed it, plain and simple luck. The word entered the English language some 200 years later.


Lots of other languages have words for "covered in cheese," but when it comes to "cheesy" in the sense of "fake, garish, and trying too hard," not a lot of other words compare. "Kitsch," from German, comes close, but it refers more to unrefined artwork. Consider that a Hummel figurine could be both cheesy and kitschy, but there's no such thing as a big, kitschy smile.


One surefire way to embed an exclusive word in a language is to just make it up wholesale (bonus points if it sounds like it already existed in the first place). "Gobbledygook" first entered the English vocabulary in 1944, from the desk of Texas senator Maury Maverick. He was railing against overly complicated words and attempting to evoke the sound of a turkey's gobble. Of special interest were the words "implementation" and "activation" — anyone using those words, according to Maverick's memo, would be shot (he was probably joking).

Incidentally, the Maverick family deserves a second, special entry on this list. Maury Maverick's grandfather, Samuel, went rogue with his cattle-branding practices — he didn't do it. Thus, any unbranded cattle was known to be a Maverick, and the word meaning "rebel" was born. But a maverick isn't exactly a rebel, more of somebody who participates in a non-conformist way. Most translations of the word don't capture that nuance.


It's one of the earliest words to emerge almost entirely online — the first recorded usage of the word comes from a listserv group from 1996: "Christie facepalmed. 'Well, her hair was red this morning, right? It's blonde now. You figure it out.'" It was officially inducted into the Merriam-Webster dictionary more than 20 years later, in 2017. Of course, the gesture is much older — if Henri Vidal's 1896 statue is any indication, it goes all the way back to Cain and Abel.


Sex work is called the "oldest profession," and unsurprisingly, men exploiting a woman-dominated marketplace isn't exactly new either. Most languages have a word for "pimp," but English is different — we're the only ones to use the word as a verb to mean "make it fancy, flashy, and fashionable." Yep, Xzibit may not have realized it at the time, but the phrase "Pimp My Ride" made linguistic history and gave the dictionary a whole new definition for a controversial word.


We're not talking about the pork-ham remix that's so popular in Hawaii. We're talking about the obnoxious stream of junk email that you and everyone else you know is subject to. While it might seem plausible that, just like Spam the food is "fake meat," spam the message is a "fake email," the truth is a bit more ridiculous. It actually comes from a Monty Python sketch — the idea being that the junk mail piles up like the star ingredient in a Spam-loving restaurant.


As Reader's Digest reports, there are lots of ways that the word "trade" can be modified by a preposition. Trade up — that's a good thing. Trade down — that's bad. But a trade-off is a concept that's hard to convey in other languages. Something like an even exchange and something like a compromise, it really just points out that any two items being swapped for each other will inherently have their own advantages and disadvantages, making the trade a matter of weighing pros and cons.


Here's a word that you probably wouldn't expect to find in other languages, since it's geographically tied to a specific, English-speaking place. Still, "hillbilly" is fascinating for its particular history. The rollicking fiddle of Appalachian bluegrass has its origins in the music of Scottish immigrants who settled in the area in the 1700s. Many of their tunes sung the praises of William of Orange, who defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, earning the transplants the nickname "Billy Boys." Combine that with the terrain they emigrated to, and you've got a whole new type of American: the hillbilly.

Correction 9/27/2018: A previous version of this article stated that the word "Serendip" was invented by the English. It actually comes from a Sanskrit term. The article has been corrected to reflect this.

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There's a lot more English weirdness to discover — like the fact that a "mortgage" is literally a "death pledge." Find out all about it in Mark Forsyth's "The Etymologicon" (free when you try Audible for the first time). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 10, 2018

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