14 Words For Sadness And Depression That Don't Exist In English
One of the most frustrating feelings about depression is the incommunicability of it. The word "depression" in English had its own poetic connotations: the word (from Latin deprime) essentially means being forced downward, or a low, sunken place. That's pretty evocative — but it doesn't cover a lot of the emotions of depression itself; the isolation, the abyss-like fears.
"Anhedonia" is another useful English term for depressive symptoms, meaning the inability to get pleasure from activities you'd normally enjoy, and for centuries the disorder and its feelings were referred to as "melancholia," a state of deep wistfulness, misery, and withdrawal. But if you step outside English — and Latin — other languages possess words that can strongly evoke the real, lived experience of depression.
"Untranslatable" words in other languages — ones that pick up on very particular feelings or situations that can't really be understood outside their particular culture — are pretty fascinating. But beyond the untranslatables, world languages have the potential to enrich our emotional vocab. English isn't stunted when it comes to sad adjectives — you can be devastated, mournful, woebegone, crestfallen, wretched, and rueful — but sometimes, other languages pick up on stuff for which we just don't have the words for.
Is it a pipe dream to hope that some of these words find their way into everyday English usage? It's happened before; Schadenfreude, a German word meaning pleasure evoked from the pain of others, is pretty well-used in English nowadays. And it'd be a lot easier to explain your particular symptoms of sadness if you could say "Yeah, I'm feeling very lebensmüde, with just a hint of hi fun koi gai." Ah well. A girl can dream.
1. Mono No Aware, 物の哀れ (Japanese)
This is one of the most famous Japanese words, and describes the particular sadness or sensitivity regarding the passage of time and the transience of life. To experience this sadness is to be affected by the fleeting nature of specific things (love, experiences, sandwiches), and become wistful or reflective about the fact that everything must end.
Sample sentence: "The passing of the seasons just fills me with a sense of mono no aware, but then I remember that summer is a steaming hellhole."
2. Dépit (French)
This French word describes the feeling of itching irritation or fury (on a small scale) that happens when you're disappointed by something, like getting rejected in love or not winning a prize.
Sample Sentence: "Urgh, I'm just so dépité that Hannibal was cancelled; I'll be miserable for the rest of the week."
3. Koev halev (Hebrew)
This refers to a certain kind of empathy. If you can't watch people suffering or miserable, particularly if you love them, because you feel it so strongly yourself — to the point of causing you serious physical pain — then this is the term for you.
Sample Sentence: "You get way too much koev halev about contestants on The Bigger Loser."
4. Hi Fun Kou Gai, ひふんこうがい (Japanese)
This Japanese term is a kind of righteous, miserable anger, a frustration and despair over a situation that seems terrible but cannot be changed. Like corruption in a government, or a friend's bad treatment.
Sample Sentence: "Oh, god, listening to old white dudes arguing about women's rights just fills me with Hi Fun Kou Gai."
5. Lebensmüde (German)
German does seem to have a lot of evocative words for emotions — which totally blasts the global stereotype of the German people as ruthlessly efficient and emotionless. Lebensmüde literally translates as "life-tired" (a lot of German words just link two or three words together to make another), and either means you do such risky things that you clearly don't care for your own safety, or that you've entered a deep, physical state of not-caring.
Sample Sentence: "You are not allowed to go drag racing again until your feeling of Lebensmüde has passed."
6. Mutterseelinallein (German)
German again — and this one is absolutely horrible. It's loneliness, but much harder-hitting than that: it's meant to evoke abandonment by everybody you love, and literally means that your mother's soul has left you. Hardcore.
Sample Sentence: "I feel so utterly Mutterseelinallein I may bake an entire cake and eat it by myself. Sitting on the floor."
7. Natsukashii 懐かしい (Japanese)
This beautiful Japanese word identifies the feeling of evocative longing for something past: a nostalgia that's also very sad, as it reminds you that what you're remembering will never come again.
Sample Sentence: "Remember Beyonce's first solo album? I've just been struck with natsukashii about it."
8. Saudade (Portuguese)
Saudade regularly tops the list of the world's most untranslatable terms. The Portuguese term, which is the basis of the entire Portuguese genre of fado music, evokes deep, soul-rending sadness, flavored with longing and melancholy.
Sample Sentence: "I've been experiencing saudade for a long time, but at least I've written some awesome song lyrics."
9. Tante 忐忑 (Chinese)
This Chinese word means a kind of nervousness or perpetual anxiety, a state of worry where your senses are so heightened that you can feel your own heartbeat.
Sample Sentence: "If they don't tell us whether the flight's going to be delayed soon I'm going to go into a permanent state of tante."
10. Toska (Russian)
The Russian word toska actually has a lot of emotional registers, if you read this definition by Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita: “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.”
Sample Sentence: "It's your first breakup. After the period of toska you'll gradually feel slightly better, and then you'll be singing Gloria Gaynor before we know it."
11. Weltschmerz (German)
This one's actually got a critical edge: it's almost an accusation. It's a kind of ennui (that's a French word meaning listlessness or severe boredom, incidentally) that translates as "world-pain". It essentially means the depression that comes from believing your problems are caused by the world itself and its unfairness and cruelty. (These days, more generously, it can just mean sadness at how depressing and horrible the modern world is.)
Sample Sentence: "If one more suburban hipster tells me they're experiencing Weltschmerz because capitalism has repressed them, I'm going to scream."
12. Xinteng 心疼 (Chinese)
This Chinese term is a literal translation of "heart ache": it's the particularly kind of sadness and pain that comes from witnessing and sharing the pain of people you love. You can translate it as "feeling sorry," but it's more physical and empathetic than that.
Sample Sentence: "I can't watch 12 Years A Slave. I suffer too much from xinteng, it would nearly kill me."
13. Viraag विराग (Hindi)
This Hindi word actually means dispassion, but a writer on the blog Better Than English notes that it can also denote a particularly kind of emotional suffering: the sadness or depression caused by separation from somebody you love.
Sample Sentence: "Skype just doesn't do much to help the viraag."
14. Wintercearig (Old English)
This may be cheating, as Old English is no longer in use — but hey, we use Latinate words all the time. Wintercearig literally means "winter-care," but it isn't about Seasonal Affective Disorder; it's more meant to be a metaphor for the strength of your sadness, which is as strong and never-ending as the bitter cold of midwinter.
Sample Sentence: "It just feels vaguely wrong to be feeling such strong wintercearig in summer."
Images: Nicolas Fuentes/Flickr; Giphy