Well of course -- what OTHER language would have a word for that?

I was reading the “contradictory identities” thread and someone mentioned a menage a trois, and I though, well, of course we use a French expression for that – what other language would we use?

So what other examples of untranslatable phrases have that certain je ne sais quois – are so thoroughly part of (our preconceptions about) the culture involved that we borrow the phrase from that language and no other?

Suggestions: la dolce vita; schlemiel; gemutlich.

Actually, there is an English equivalent for “ménage à trois”, and I hear it used quite often - “threesome”.
I don’t hear the English equivalent of “je ne sais quoi” very often, but I’ve used it…

"So what other examples of untranslatable phrases have that certain I don’t know?"


“The sweet life”. Not so untranslatable, is it? :wink:


Actually, ménage means “household,” and ménage à trois is a permanent living arrangement, whereas a threesome is a mere sexual encounter. Ménage à trois is therefore better translated as “triad.”

Sorry – apparently my OP wasn’t clear. I’m not saying these phrases can’t be translated – I’m saying there’s something so right about the fact that the culture that gave birth to them is the culture that gave birth to them. that we use that language to convey a certain je ne sais quoi that refers to a whole cultural gestalt – a weltanshaung, dare I say? We do say “la dolce vita,” not “the sweet life.” to evoke a certain mood or vibe. Menage a trois is a perfect example – as nametag points out, it’s not about a threesome (a drunken misadventure stumbled into way too late some Saturday night in Amarillo) but a permanent living arrangement involving three people of the world in an exquisitely decorated apartment in the 19th Arondissment. Would the Japanese come up with the idea of a menage a trois? Would the Russians? And, okay, suppose they did – the Japanese term, or the Russian, wouldn’t have the same connotation of sophisticated naughtiness that using a French term conveys.

Those are the kinds of phrases I’m looking for. I’m suggesting there’s something about the whole Eastern European Jewish experience evoked in the world shlemiel/; something about a particularly German kind of cosiness embedded in gemutlich

Effin’ A – I previewed that sucker about 10 times to make sure I had the coding right… :smack:

I’m probably just an odd classicist but I always think of je ne sais quoi as being the French translation of the Latin phrase nescio quid.

There’s an Irish phrase, dul chun drabhlais, which my dictionary translates as “To go on a spree of revelry and debauchery”.

You gotta love a language with a three word phrase for that.

Heck, In English we have some one-word-phrases for that eg a “bender” or “Saturday”.

Yes but threesome lacks a certain je ne sais quoi

It’s in reverse, and I don’t know how accurate it is, but Bill Bryson commented on the french phrase “le dirtyweekend” that he found it tremendously endearing of them that they had no word of their own for an illegitimate bonk between friday and monday.

My own offering: thoyle. A Yorkshire word meaning “to spend more on something than you could bear to.” (It’s only used in the negative, as in “I couldn’t thoyle to spend that much on it”)

Lots of Yiddish words: Chutzpah, Schmuck, oy vey!, etc.

The Hebrew davka seems to fit, nicely.

like “paint the town” for example?

Oh, BTW - zeitgeist


Uff da.

“Pop a cap in yo’ ass.”

Absolutely on both of these!

“Paint the town” sounds to me like you’re being chauffered from cocktail party to cocktail party in a limo, sipping champagne all the while. Not a similar connotation at all IMHO.