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

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