5 untranslatable Spanish words English needs right now

If you’re reading this article, then you are one smart galleta. Learning Spanish is one of the best ideas you will have this year, as it’s the second most spoken language in the world, the official language in 21 countries and an unofficial language in many more. 

Learning Spanish and getting to grips with its tricky grammar will benefit you and enhance future travels. If you happen to be an English speaker, you may find yourself lost for words in certain awkward situations and scenarios. Not sure why it would be worse for non-English speakers, but who are we to ask these tough questions? We’re already in the second paragraph. 

Gymglish is here to add to the general confusion with our latest installation of “Lost in translation”: a guide to unique Spanish terms with no direct English equivalent. Shall we? We shall. 

Duende

This first Spanish word is uniquely Spanish and all but impossible to translate word for word in another language.

In Spanish and Latin American folklore, un duende refers to a mythical creature like a ghost, goblin, or fairy. Later on, the term came to describe the mystical or powerful force given off by a flamenco singer or performer to draw in the audience. The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote in his essay Teoria y Juego del Duende (“Play and Theory of the Duende”) that duende is “a power and not a behavior”.

Today, the term is usually used to talk about someone’s charm or allure or to describe something that has much depth and impact.

Sobremesa

English vocabulary really does fall short when it comes to mealtime. In Spanish culture, la sobremesa is an allotted time after lunch to enjoy coffee, sometimes liquor, and most importantly each other’s company.

A typical sobremesa involves long hours of leisurely chatting and enjoying a cafecito (“small coffee”) before clearing up the table. When visiting places like Mexico City or Bogotá, a sobremesa is one of the best ways to get connected to the culture.

Tocayo

Some languages are better than others at crisply naming extremely specific things – and Spanish does it here with élan.

The terms un tocayo and una tocaya refer to a person with the same name as you –  your name twin, or name double so to speak. The term comes from the Nahuatl word un tocaitl which could either mean “a name” or “a reputation”.

The word is commonly used in a conversation with friends or to replace “hi” when talking to someone with the same name as you. In Catalonia for instance, there is an 80% chance you’ll come across another Jordi – they might address each other as “tocayo”.

The closest translation to this term in English is “a namesake”.

Did you know? The Germans have a term for someone who physically resembles you: der Doppelgänger. Check out our article on 5 untranslatable German terms, it might come in handy when you meet your spitting image.

Tertulia

This term is fit for bookworms and really any worm. There’s no need to discriminate. 

Una tertulia is a social gathering held in a coffee shop, bar or someone’s house to discuss literature, science or art. The participants (called contertulias) often meet around 4pm and show off their most recent work – possibly artwork, poetry, short stories, or music.

In early 20th century Spain, people would go to tertulias literarias and meet regularly to discuss literary issues of the day at very famous coffee shops. It’s similar to the literary or music salons often held among artists and intellectual classes. 

Estrenar

The Spanish verb estrenar means to wear, use, or try out for the first time. For instance, you may be dying to wear that new sustainable tank-top or crash that brand-new car you can’t afford.

The term originates from the Latin word strena which means “sign” or “omen”

Useful tip: the verb estrenar is also used in the film industry to talk about a newly-released movie.

Bonus: Chingada

This last (vulgar) classic is a staple of Mexican Spanish. La chingada stems from the Spanish verb chingar which means “to ruin” or more colloquially “to f*ck” or “to screw”. As a noun, it can refer to a hellish type place, possibly even hell.

The versatile term is often used to express frustration and disappointment. Variants include vete a la chingada (“go to hell”), tu chingada madre (“motherf@^ker”) or hijo de la chingada (“son of a b^#@%”).

Did you know? The concept of la chingada was used by Mexican Poet Octavio Paz in his book El laberinto de la soledad.

Want to learn more about Spanish? Try our online Spanish course Hotel Borbollón: short, fun and personalized lessons to get you fluent in no time!



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2 thoughts on “5 untranslatable Spanish words English needs right now

  1. Marita

    Dear Gymglish creators,

    Thank you for your really exciting contribution on the 5 untranslatable Spanish terms. Despite everything, here is my humble attempt to give the Spanish “duende” a more or less functioning equivalent in English: “mojo”. What do you think? I am not a native speaker neither in Spanish nor in English but it might fit, right?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUJCNoLmRO4

    Best regards from Germany

    Marita 😉

    1. Olivia

      Hello Marita,

      Thank you for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment on our latest piece.

      After having raised this issue with our team, it turns out “mojo” is indeed very similar to “duende” but doesn’t quite conjure up the same meaning (in Spanish, one can’t lose their “duende”). In the words of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “duende” is “a power and not a behavior”.

      Have a fantastic day!

      Olivia

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