One of the most frustrating feelings about depression is how hard it is to describe. 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, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That's pretty evocative — but it doesn't cover a lot of the emotions of depression itself; the isolation, the abyss-like fears. Words for sadness that don't translate into English can often be far more true to the experience of that feeling than what's already available in our language.
"Often when a word or expression doesn’t have a one-to-one translation into another language, it’s because the original word or expression is culturally bound," says Jennifer Bloomquist, Ph.D., a professor of linguistics at Gettysburg College. "When the translation occurs, it is frequently the case that the translation is not exact and some sense of the original is lost. The reason for this is that the original was created by a culture that had a need to encode the meaning of the word [or] expression in a particular way."
Emotions are a particular area where cultural understanding can help shape the way in which a word is used — and what it's used to described. For centuries, depression and its feelings were referred to as "melancholia," a state of deep wistfulness, misery, and withdrawal (as well as an excellent Lars von Trier film). 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 vocabulary. 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 often used in English nowadays. And it'd be a lot easier to explain your particular experience of sadness if you could say, "Yeah, I'm feeling very lebensmüde, with just a hint of hi fun koi gai."
Here are 18 words for sadness and depression that don't have direct equivalents in English.
1. Mono No Aware, 物の哀れ (Japanese)
This phrase 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.
2. Dépite (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.
3. Koev li halev, כואב לי הלב (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.
4. Watjilpa, Pitjantjatjara
A 2012 study on depression in Aboriginal men in Australia found that there is no clear-cut vocabulary to describe the clinical symptoms of depression. Interviews with subjects, however, found that the concept fell close to kulini-kulini, a phrase meaning "excessive, intrusive and repetitive worry, ‘too much thinking’, ‘too much worry’." Watjilpa, a word from the Pitjantjatjara language, also describes a feeling of disconnection from family or social units. Similar to homesickness, but far more deeply felt.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. Ghoseh, غصه (Farsi)
In Farsi, the word ghoseh is along the lines of sadness, but in a much more physical sense. A friend who speaks Farsi defines it as "to have emptiness," or "to practice holding sadness." A perfect term for when the your sorrow feels a little outside yourself, or is an emotion that needs to be carried, rather than internalized.
9. Mutterseelinallein (German)
German again — and this one is absolutely horrible. It's loneliness, but much harder-hitting than that: it's meant to evoke being abandoned by everybody you love, and literally means that your mother's soul has left you. Hardcore.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. Tǎntè, 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.
13. Toska, Тоска (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.”
14. Weltschmerz (German)
This one's actually got a critical edge: it's almost an accusation. It's a kind of ennui (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.)
15. Xīnténg, 心疼 (Chinese)
This Chinese term is a literal translation of "heartache": 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.
16. Viraag, विराग (Hindi)
This Hindi word 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.
17. Stenachória, Στεναχώρια (Greek)
A heritage Greek speaker tells me stenachória "can mean worry, grief, upset. It's versatile." Derived from the words for "narrow" and "room," but etymologically related to "close" and "chorus," the word speaks to the experience of being in an enclosed space, where the darkness of the corners feel inescapable. The same speaker also pointed me towards στεναχώριεμαι (stenachóriemai), which is a more physical experience. "Στεναχώριεμαι can probably be translated as 'I am choked up'," she says. "It's literally a physical response to grief."
18. Sielvartas (Lithuanian)
The website Eunoia, a database of untranslatable words, translates sielvartas as "soul tumbling," and notes that it's used in cases of grief or resentment. Other sources on Lithuanian translate it as distress, woe, or pain.