Epeolatry Sunday: Untranslatable Words, Linguistic Orientalism, and German being German

Friends and family love to send me lists of untranslatable words that are currently making the rounds on the internet. Which is great, although it does lead to quite a bit of overlap – if you’ve read more than one list of untranslatable words you’ll know what I mean. As the header image for this post shows, there are about a dozen mainstays, and a rotating cast of one or two dozen others, most of them being drawn from German, French, or Japanese.

But these lists do make me wonder: why are we so enamored with the idea of “untranslatable” words? In much the same way that Western cultures exotise and fetishise just about everything east of Austria, I suspect that we word-list-readers are guilty of a bit of linguistic Orientalism. These untranslatables become tokens from which we can extrapolate an entire culture, one that seems much deeper or more quirky or more practical or more caring than our own.

That said, these lists can also be a lot of fun. So, in tribute to word lists everywhere, here’s a great word that I learned from one of my German roommates and then completely forget until I stumbled across it yesterday in an untranslatable word list:


Unsurprisingly, if you google images for “backpfeifengesicht,” you’ll find this.

das Backpfeifengesicht: (neutre noun, German) someone who needs to be slapped in the face. Lit. a face in need of a fist. In good German style, it’s a compound noun made up of the words Backpfeife, meaning (more or less) knuckle sandwich, and Gesicht, meaning face

Further proof that German has a word for everything.


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