The power of distinctive words … exploring the awe of duende, the search for saudade, and the beauty of wabi sabi

November 28, 2018

As an author and speaker, I love the power of an unusual, distinctive or inspiring word.

In particular words that are unique to a certain language, a concept that is deeply embedded in a culture, and cannot be simply translated into another language, because there is nothing like it.

Living in a world of relentless chatter, fast and complex, overloaded with content, it’s easy for words to diminish in value. And impact. Therefore finding better words is a great way to say more, to explore something a little more interesting, and memorable.

In the last year or two words like hygge have become popular. It captures the Nordic spirit of cosyness, with a visual image of huge blazing fires in a wooden chalet home, with hot wine to beat the deep snow and Arctic winds whistling around outside. Or in ikigai we explore the Japanese concept of meaning, combining both personal and collective purpose, doing what you love, and being more successful because you find coherence in your passion and actions.

Here are some more distinctive words, and their stories:

  • Duende (Spanish) … While originally used to describe a mythical, spirit-like entity that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning has transitioned into referring to “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.”
  • Saudade(Portuguese) … One of the most beautiful of all words, translatable or not, this word “refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which/who is lost.” Fado music, a type of mournful singing, relates to saudade.
  • Wabi-Sabi (Japanese) … Much has been written on this  concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.”
  • Litost (Czech) … Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, remarked that, “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
  • Toska (Russian) … Vladmir Nabokov describes it best: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
  • Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan, the indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) … “The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.”

We could go on … Do you have a friend who’s a bit of an extrawurst (someone who slows things down by being fussy)? Perhaps you suffer from tsundoku (leaving a book unread) because of your neighbour’s tingo (gradually stealing possessions and not returning them). Even though we English-speaking millennials call it something along the lines of, “What am I doing with my life?!” we certainly all know what it’s like to feel torschlusspanik (the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages).

Here are 50 great words brought together from around the world:



More from the blog

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.