There’s a word for that – a positive celebration of Language

Through the British Psychological Society Research Digest, I recently came across a paper by psychologist Tim Lomas about positive words and phrases in other languages for which there is no direct equivalent in English – Towards a positive cross cultural lexicography. The paper sets out to address Western bias in positive psychology and Lomas is building a database of such words. This got me thinking about positive language at our school. We like using it, of course, but are we restricting our linguistic palette in our diverse school community, and missing an opportunity to celebrate the richness of language in our community? Could our EAL students be teaching us more?

I decided to share some of the words from the paper with my school colleagues. The list I shared included the following:

  • Sobremesa – Spanish for when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing
  • Nakama – Japanese for friends who one considers like family
  • Gigil – Philippine Tagalog for the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because you love them so much
  • Suaimhneas croi – Gaelic for the happiness that comes from finishing a task
  • Firgun – Hebrew for saying nice things to someone simply to make them feel good
  • Asabiyyah – Arabic for a sense of community spirit
  • Pihentagyu – Hungarian for quick witted people who come up with sophisticated jokes and solutions (literally “with a relaxed brain”)
  • Kao pu – Chinese for someone who is reliable and responsible and gets things done without causing problems for others.

You can find a fuller list of words in the link to Lomas’s paper. 

Sharing some of these words produced some lively debate in school students had the opportunity to explain the meaning and usage of words to their peers; a pleasant role-reversal for some. 

We did uncover a couple of interesting points. ‘Firgun’ can also mean joy at the success of another. Our Arabic-speaking students, however, all viewed ‘asabiyyah’ as having negative connotations of exclusion, underlining how careful we have to be with our use of language. 

Lomas’ database is continually updated, so we are seeing what words our multilingual student community can come up with. I’d be interested to hear contributions from readers of useful words you have found that have no direct English translation.

Post finished and I’m starting to feel some suaimhneas croi.

Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-13 


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