Coming off 2016 election season, we’re reminded once again: despite the childhood rhymes, words really can hurt you. But, unsurprisingly, they also have the power to heal, expand the mind and incite joy. Dr. Tim Lomas, a lecturer of applied positive psychology at the University of East London, began the Positive Lexicography Project, a reference guide to untranslatable words from around the world. Each word relates to well-being, and for the most part, represents and describes feelings, emotions and expressions that have been condensed by a people or culture into a single, unique word.
Lomas embarked on the project following the International Positive Psychology Association hosted in 2015 in Florida, where he was introduced to the word sisu, a Finnish character trait that means "extraordinary courage and determination".
“It can’t be reduced to English words,” says Lomas. “I [came by the word] when I walked by a Finnish researcher who was explaining the word’s specificity to Finnish culture. It’s something they’re very proud of, but at the same time, it’s something we can all experience.”
The concept resonated with Lomas, who dove into researching additional words exclusive to languages other than English. And, being a positive psychologist, he wanted that “feel-good” aspect, as well. He then sorted the terms by themes, as “different cultures have roughly similar concepts — like love or wisdom.” Lomas crowdsourced much of his research analysis, leaving his definitions open for rewrites by native speakers.
The result is the Positive Lexicography Project, an evolving resource of roughly 800 words, each exclusive to its native speakers. Words range from Sweden’s gökotta, meaning “waking up early to hear the first birds sing,” to suaimhneas croi, a Gaelic word that means the “happiness / contentment on finishing a task.” The list, hosted on Lomas’s website, grows as his efforts gain momentum, with readers suggesting additions and redefinitions on the regular while he continues to research the project himself.
“I find myself going down rabbit holes,” laughs Lomas. “The more I look, the more I realize there are thousands of languages in existence; I’ve only scratched the surface.” He is currently in the process of creating an academic book based on his findings.
Lomas theorizes that these culture-exclusive words come to be as a result of environment or needs. He gives the example of the Inuit word for “snow.” There are several anthropological and linguistic debates as to the specifics, but the punchline is: there’s no single word for snow in the Inuit language. “The premise is that snow and ice are such a significant part of their existence and culture that they need a relatively sophisticated language to discuss it,” says Lomas; thus the differentiations come to exist.
Lomas hopes the readers can find satisfaction in the ability to articulate and understand things you’re already feeling. For example, take hygge — the trendy Danish term loosely defined as "coziness" that’s sweeping the nation. We’ve always had the ability to seek warm blankets, flickering candles and mulled wine, but thanks to hygge, we now have the power to express the sentiments and feelings those experiences create in one simple word.
“And sometimes,” he adds, “I think these words can lead us to new experiences — identify phenomena we haven’t experienced and look for that and develop them into our life.”
Lovely words you should know
Agape (ἀγάπη) (Greek; n.): selfless, compassionate, unconditional, devotional love.
Engelengeduld (Dutch; n.): angelic patience (i.e., great patience).
Enraonar (Catalan, v.): to discuss in a civilised, reasoned manner.
Fernweh (German, n.): literally ‘far pain/sickness’ (the opposite of homesickness); the ‘call of faraway places,’ longing/homesickness for the unknown.
Gökotta (Swedish, n.): lit. 'early-morning cuckoo', waking up early to hear the first birds sing.
Saudade (Portuguese; n.): melancholic longing, nostalgia, wistfulness.
Savoir-être (French, n.): knowing how to be and carry oneself; 'soft' or interpersonal skills.
Sisu (Finnish; n.): extraordinary determination in the face of adversity.
Wú wéi (Chinese; 無為): literally to ‘do nothing,’ acting in accordance with the Tao, being natural, uncontrived and effortless.