In my second novel, The Sweetness of Tears, (now at a bookstore near you!) one of the main characters, Jo, has a collection of words in different languages that she’s kept since she was a child, words taught her by her missionary grandmother, Faith. Jo’s list, and the fact that I did a wee bit of translating of couplets by the Urdu poet, Ghalib, got me thinking about words and phrases I love from around the world. Below, you’ll see a list of some of my favorites…words and phrases I love because of how they sound, what they mean, or because they’re so embedded in the culture they come from that they are hard to translate. In honor of Jo and The Sweetness of Tears, I invite you to help make my list longer. If you have a word or a phrase, in any language, that you love, please email or tweet me so I can add it to my list. Don’t forget to let me know what language it’s in, how to pronounce it and why you love it.
International Word and Phrase Collection
chutzpah: (Hebrew) audacity. Love the way the word sounds like what it means.
habibi (habibti in feminine form): (Arabic) beloved. Term of endearment used casually between friends, like buddy, and also between lovers, the tone it’s used in gives away the intended meaning.
hurriyah: (Arabic) freedom. I love the way it sounds like “hurry” in English, true to the spirit of the Arab Spring, the hurry that young people in the Arab world are suddenly in for the struggle for freedom long denied.
yalla: (Arabic) let’s go, come on! Seems like an exclamation point is built into the sound and feel of this word.
jaan: (Hindi/Urdu/Farsi) life. Term of endearment, like darling or dear.
chalo: (Hindi/Urdu) let’s go.
masala: (Hindi/Urdu) mix of spices. A lip-smacking, mouth-watering word that has became global…and the spiciness implied isn’t just about food. (Remember Denzel in Mississippi Masala?)
daal cheenie (Hindi/Urdu): cinnamon….this word translates literally to sugar for daal or lentils. I love this word for so many reasons. Daal is a spicy dish, so I love the contradictory taste buds activated on saying this word, and the fact that cinnamon, which is a spice for sweet dishes in European based cooking is used (often) in savory/spicy dishes on the Indian subcontinent.
jambo: (Swahili) hello/how are you. I visited Kenya years ago and the charm of this word is the broad smile you always see when you hear it used.
hindi bale: (Tagalog) never mind, it doesn’t matter. I lived in the Philippines for a couple of years as a child and never forgot how the tune used in speaking this phrase conveys it’s meaning.
oo: (Tagalog) yes. Pronounced in two syllables, oh-oh, it’s the nicest sound of yes I’ve ever heard.
scoundrel: (English) a dishonest or unscrupulous person. Love the sound of it….makes me think of Harrison Ford as Han Solo.
y’all: (English) contraction for you all. I know this is a typically Southern term, but can someone explain how it migrated into the Indian Subcontinent??
m’ijo, m’ija: (Spanish) contraction for mi hijo or mi hija, my son or my daughter. Used when addressing children, even when they’re not yours, the contracted form carries all the affection that all children deserve in the tradition of “it takes a village.”
shireen: (Urdu/Farsi) sweetness. Just the sound of it activates my sweet tooth and makes my mouth water.
oy vey: (Yiddish) oh woe. Who doesn’t love this one? Suggested by @AuthorCrush
nachas: (Yiddish) taking joy in someone’s joy. So much lovelier than its baser opposite, shadenfreude, isn’t it? Suggested by @AuthorCrush
uff da: (Norwegian) expression of disgruntlement of all kinds, like oy vey. Often used as a substitute for swear words, I’m adding this one to my suitably censored, delicate, maternally conscious vocabulary. Suggested by @AuthorCrush
kushi: (Kichwa) happiness. Sounds like khushi in Urdu/Hindi, which means the same thing. I love it when words from totally different parts of the world mirror each other. Suggested by Altaf
sumak kawsay: (Kichwa) good living. A word loaded with wonderful, harmonious connotations and a whole philosophy of ethics to boot. Suggested by Altaf