Tag Archives: word

The Untranslatables: #6 Toska


Sometimes, no matter what you’re doing and no matter how well things are going in life, you just feel blue. It happens to the best of us. And apparently it happens so frequently to Russians that a whole magnificently untranslatable word has been dedicated to it: Toska.

In a nutshell, toska (written ‘TOCKA’ in Cyrillic) describes a sort of existential sadness. But to say that it represents this alone would be a great injustice to the true complexity of the concept. More than just sadness, this word expresses depression, melancholy, nostalgia, boredom, weariness, anguish, yearning, longing, missing, pining, ennui…

… and the list goes on. You name it: if it has depressing undertones, it forms part of ‘toska’.

One of the most frequently referenced definitions of the word was provided by Vladimir Nabokov (see below), but even this is considered to be lacking by some.

The issue, according to linguist Anna Wierzbicka, is that the word represents a range of emotions which are “blended together and are all present at the same time, even though different contexts may highlight different components of this complex but unitary concept”.

It is no doubt the constant malleability of the word’s significance that thus makes it so tricky to define to non-Russians. But even if we can’t enjoy the true meaning of the word, we can at least enjoy saying it next time we feel blue. Or bored. Or melancholy. Or weary. Or anguished. Or… you get the idea.

« 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 of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” – Vladimir Nabokov

The Untranslatables: #5 Age-Otori


Have you ever left the hairdresser’s with the distinct feeling you should start wearing a hat? Or been forced to stifle your laughter as your friend shows off her new ‘do? Well, in Japan there is (supposedly) a word for such an unfortunate moment: Age-Otori.

Broadly speaking, ‘Age-Otori’ means ‘to look worse after a haircut’. It’s a neat little term which I’m sure almost all of us could use at some point. And it certainly has no simple equivalent in English. But despite this, I hesitated to include it in my list of ‘Untranslatables’.

The problem is, ‘Age-Otori’ is surrounded by a great deal of controversy. Ok, that’s perhaps an exaggeration. It’s surrounded by a little bit of controversy: a number of slightly snooty and smug internet users claim the term doesn’t really exist.

This is often a problem with so-called ‘untranslatable’ words. Several francophone friends have told me similar things for the terms ‘feuillemort’ and ‘esprit d’escalier’, both common culprits on lists of such words.

But after a great deal of snooping, I have decided that ‘Age-Otori’ does deserve to be included in my list. Although not commonly used nowadays (except by language nerds who like to make lists of fun words from other countries), it seems the word did feature in a very old novel and was even included in an edition of the Japanese Kojien (sort of like the OED). And just because something is old, it doesn’t mean it’s non-existant! So, Age-Otori, welcome to my list of Untranslatables!

And who knows? Perhaps if enough of us start using it, we’ll get it reinserted into the OED as a loan word!

The Untranslatables: #1 Kalsarikänni


“A drink. At home. In your underwear. And there is a word for it. Kalsarikänni.”

This is how the website ‘this is Finland.fi’ happily describes the concept of ‘Kalsarikänni’, a.k.a, Päntsdrunk, the fun and slightly more accessible Finnish version of ‘Hygge’.

We all know Hygge. It’s the lovely Danish trend of snuggly cosiness that’s been sweeping through recent winters like a whimsical blizzard of patterned jumpers, photogenic hot chocolates and stylish interior design. If you’ve not lived it yourself, you’ll at least have seen it on Instagram.

Well, I am delighted to now introduce you to Hygge’s easygoing and slightly more alcoholic neighbour, Kalsarikänni: the concept of having a drink, at home, in your underwear, with absolutely no intention of going out whatsoever. And the best bit? In Finland this is seen in a positive light!

Far from equating to stereotypical, antisocial binge drinking, the idea of Päntsdrunk is to give yourself a moment of calm, cut off from the ‘real world’. According to writer Miska Rantanen:

“In Finland, Päntsdrunk is considered a path to recovery and self-empowerment to help you face your future challenges.”

Never before has drinking alone been so socially acceptable.

The original word is a compound, made up of ‘kalsari’ (underpants) and ‘känni’ (intoxication), but the more anglicised (and easily pronounceable) version, ‘Päntsdrunk’ was introduced through Rantanen’s recent book, Päntsdrunk: Kalsärikanni: The Finnish Path to Relaxation.

With even the OED blog citing Päntsdrunk as one of this Summer’s buzz words, Kalsarikänni is sure to be this Winter’s craze. So, get the log fire burning, strip down to your unmentionables, whack some Baileys in your hot chocolate and snuggle up to Päntsdrunk.