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Talkin’ ’bout lurve


In an altruistic desire to expand and enliven the language of love, these are some relationship words from around the world which do not readily translate into English in a single word or phrase.

Mamihlapinatapei (Yaghan, spoken on Tierra del Fuego): The look shared by two people who both want to start something, who both know it’s going to happen but who are both reluctant to ‘go first’.

Yuanfen (缘分 , Mandarin): A relationship governed by fate or destiny. Drawing on the ancient principles of order and  predetermination in Chinese culture, which dictate relationships, encounters and affinities, mostly among lovers and friends.

Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese): The act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair. The derivation is uncertain but is said to be possibly from Kimbundu, a Bantu language spoken in Angola and presumably taken across the Atlantic by the slave trade.

Ilunga (Tshiluba, another Bantu language, spoken in DR Congo): One who is willing to forgive abuse the first time and tolerate it the second time, but never a third time. It conveys the slow and almost ritualised progression – not the arbitrary “three strikes and you’re out” – towards outright intolerance. At each stage one’s patience and sympathy are subtly but irrevocably eroded. According to the BBC, in 2004 it was judged the world’s most difficult to translate.

La Douleur Exquise (French): The heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have. This is not “unrequited love”, for that is a relationship term that defines the lov-ee as much as the lov-er.  La douleur exquise describes only the anguish of being the one whose desire is unreciprocated.

Retrouvailles (another French one):  The happiness of meeting again after a long period out of each other’s company.

Koi No Yokan (恋の予感 , Japanese): The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall into love. This is the sense of the inevitability of love, as opposed to the instant animal attraction of love at first sight.

Ya’aburnee (  أنت دفن لي , Arabic):  Literally “you bury me.” It’s a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before the other person, because of the perceived impossibility of living without them. I was going to make a daaaark joke about suicide bombers, but good taste got the better of me – for a change. 

Forelsket: (Norwegian):  The total euphoria you experience when you’re first falling in love; perhaps “the shock of the new”, to take Robert Hughes’ phrase completely out of context.

Saudade (Portuguese): The feeling of longing for someone whom you love and is lost, the idealised and possibly eternally imaginary love.  Saudade doesn’t distinguish between a ghost and a fantasy; nor do we, much of the time.


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