There’s a Word for That
by Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic
Guess who’s coming to dinner? The machetunim.
That’s the Yiddish word you’ll probably use soon after your daughter has announced her engagement, when you’ve invited her fiancé’s parents to your home for the first time.
In contrast, there is no single word in the English language to describe one’s relatives by marriage.
Yiddish is filled with many hard-to-translate words that have no equivalent in English, words that convey a whole range of emotions.
Another is mechayah, literally “resurrection,” a feeling of pleasure, delight and relief. You might experience this when you loosen your belt after a big meal or stand in the surf and splash yourself on a hot day. In English, it could take three sentences to convey the sentiment: “Aaaah! Now that the bar mitzvah is over, I can peel off these Spanx. I can finally breathe again.” In Yiddish, you need just three words: “What a mechayah!”
It’s no surprise that other languages have untranslatable words, too. As self-described word mavens, we couldn’t resist taking a closer look at some farkakteh foreign words through a Yiddish lens:
Badkruka is a Swedish word that describes someone who is reluctant to jump into the water outdoors. No wonder they are reluctant: In Scandinavia, there are all those freezing cold fjords. Who would want to jump in and freeze their tootsies off? In Atlantic City, we’re only badkruka when the ocean temperature dips below 68 degrees. Of course, that means we probably won’t wade in until mid-August.
At the swim club, when we see a bunch of women glued to their lounge chairs, we don’t think they are badkruka; we know they don’t want to get their hair wet.
Zapoi is Russian for two or more days of drunkenness, usually involving waking up in an unexpected place. There’s no Jewish equivalent for this kind of drunkenness; we like to wake up in our own cozy beds. The only thing that comes to mind is the custom on Purim when Jews are supposed to drink until they can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordecai. Sometimes people down shots of whiskey in the back of the synagogue to fulfill this minhag (custom), but it’s no zapoi unless you wake up on the bimah.
Kabelsalat is German for tangled-up cables. It translates as cable salad. Klaus might say, “When I keep my earbuds in my pocket, they come out all kabelsalat.” For this word, there is a Yiddish equivalent: “When we tried to move the surge protector, all the cords were ongepotchket (disorganized, cluttered, thrown together).”
Uitwaaien is Dutch for going out for a walk in the countryside in order to clear one’s mind. Our uitwaaien is going down to the basement to put the wet clothes in the dryer and realizing that it’s so nice and cool and quiet down there that there’s no reason to hurry back upstairs.
Ikigai is the Japanese term for a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live. We’re Jewish mothers. Our word for ikigai is “children.”
Then there’s the Inuit word iktsuarpok. It’s described as the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’ve arrived yet. It’s curious that the Inuits, the native people of the Arctic Circle, coined this word. Isn’t it too cold to leave the igloo and stand out on the tundra waiting for the dogsled?
We iktsuarpok all the time–waiting for the school bus to drop off the kids, the UPS guy to deliver the coffee we ordered, and the plumber to show up. We love this word so much that we have adopted it. Since the English language has appropriated so many Yiddish words, we think it’s only fair that we add one word back in.
Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic, The Word Mavens, are the authors of the Dictionary of Jewish Words. They give book talks, blog and tweet @TheWordMavens. They can be reached at [email protected].