A “lexical gap” is the absence of a word in a language. For example, individuals who have never engaged in intercourse are referred to as “virgins” but there is no word in English for someone who is not a virgin.
When we come across a concept that has no word, we must work around it either by describing it using the words we have (like saying “not a virgin”) or we may steal a word from a different language that has a such a word (like when English speakers use the word “schadenfreude”).
Here are some fun/interesting lexical gaps:
1. Schadenfreude. This is a German word and it refers to “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” We English speakers have conscripted this word because even though this is a common feeling, we have no word for it. Here’s a great article from the Guardian about the joys of schadenfreude.
2. Zeitgeist. Staying with words conscripted from German: the word Zeitgeist, which according to Wikipedia means “spirit of the age; it refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch in world history” is commonly used by English speakers.
3. Hygge. This is a Danish word which according to Dictionary.com means “the feeling of coziness and contentment evoked by simple comforts, as being wrapped in a blanket, having good conversations, enjoying food, etc.” What a nice concept. I’m going to start using this word.
4. What do you call the circular mark of liquid that is left on a table by a cold glass? In Italian it is called Cualacino. We don’t have a direct word for it in English.
5. You know when you are about to sneeze but maybe not 100% sure you’re going to sneeze? There’s no word for that. I think there should be.
6. How about when you are tipped back in a chair and all of the sudden you feel like you are going to fall over and struggle to catch yourself? There’s no word for that feeling of being about to fall but maybe being able to save yourself from falling. It would be a useful word to describe other situations like when you think you might be in a traffic accident but then avoid the other car or when you think you are about to trip and fall but try to catch yourself from falling.
7. Vbyafnout is a Czech word that means jumping out to scare someone. Here’s how it would work in a sentence: “Over the past 18 years, Ty has vbyanouted Liz so many times that I bet he’s taken years off her life.”
6. Boketto is a Japanese word that means to gaze vacantly off into the distance without thinking about anything in particular.
8. Back to German — the word Kummerspeck refers to the excess weight gained by emotional overeating. It’s literal meaning in German is “grief bacon.” Awesome.
9. What do you call a person who asks a lot of questions — maybe too many questions? In Russian that person is a pochemuchka. In law school that person is a “gunner.” Outside of law school there is no word in English for such a person.
10. Tsundoku is a Japanese word that means “a pile of books waiting to be read.” What a lovely concept. I can’t believe that we don’t have a word for that in English, but we don’t. Nassim Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, talks about the value of unread books and refers to a library of unread books as an “antilibrary.” Here’s Maria Popova’s beautiful post about Taleb’s concept of an antilibrary.
9. Dr. Pepper. When we travel with my wife’s cousin, he peppers the tour guides with questions.
Leave it to the germans to articulate certain aspects of the human experience…Schadenfreude and “grief bacon” Classic.
Sorry to correct you but that Italian word does exist but you have the spelling wrong. It is
I have had a tsundoku for many years, perhaps because I’m busy playing sudoku instead of reading. Surely you have one as well. If you would like to add one to your tsundoku and learn more about hygge, a couple of years ago I read “The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well” by Meik Wiking, and you may enjoy it also.
Thanks. I’ll buy it and at the very least add to my electronic library of tsundoku
Not sure that is quite what a gunner is, or not a complete description anyway. But then, I definitely wouldn’t know.
Some more comments/suggestions:
– Schadenfreude has Russian equivalent: “zloradstvovat”; and question – doesn’t gloat has the same meaning?
– Hygge: Russian word for it “uyutno”; question, perhaps because I’m not English native speaker it seems to me that “cozy” has the same meaning as “Hygge” – isn’t it?
Ye,s but gloat is a verb, so applies in the moment. Schadenfreude is a whole abstract thing.
Broadway has covered a couple of these – “Avenue Q” has a hilarious song dedicated to the definition of Schadenfreude, and “Frozen” (Broadway version, not movie version) has a song about “Hygge.”
Also – Yiddish has some great words that we could use in English, like mishpucha (family plus extended family and family-of-family), and some that we’ve taken to using here already, like glitch, chutzpah, nosh, schmuck, klutz, schlep, and schtick.
Thanks for this, John. I couple of comments.
#3 Hygge has (in my experience) a more common German equivalent in gemütlich. There really isn’t an English equivalent. I think cozy is close, but it’s not used as much by English speakers as gemütlich is by Germans.
#6 The chair example (at least in so far as the sensation is an exaggeration of reality) is what pilots know as the Coriolus Illusion (at least they know it for the written test). “The inertial forces resulting from a forward linear acceleration (take-off, increased acceleration during level flight, vertical climb) produce a backward displacement of the otoconia of the utricle that pulls the cupula, which in turn bends the hair-cell filaments that send a signal to the brain, indicating that the head and body have suddenly been moved forward. Exposure to a backward linear acceleration, or to a forward linear deceleration has the opposite effect.”
Love this so much!
Great words! They should be added to urban dictionary!