Arab pearls of wisdom: 12 untranslatable words and phrases

Published August 21st, 2013 - 13:01 GMT

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Tu’burni
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Image 1 of 12: Tu’burni: (Lit. Bury Me)- If you said this in a different context or language, you’d come off suicidal! A term of extreme fawning or affection that goes beyond the grave, it is a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how tough it would be to live without them.

zankha
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Image 1 of 12: Zankha: Arabs are obsessed with this word! Technically translated, it means putrid and is used to capture the unpleasant after-taste or stink that accompanies poultry products- raw and even cooked chicken and egg. It can also be used as a mild insult if someone is being particularly fowl or more kindly, annoying.

Tah'mil j'meel
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Image 1 of 12: Tarbih/ Tah’mil j’meel (approx. lording it over another) Favors rendered insincerely & banked as capital against another for use directly or indirectly as leverage. People are guilty of this faux pas when they bestow a good turn willingly but remind the receiver at every opportunity of their amazing grace. Not to be confused for currying favor.

Dam khafeef Dam Ta'qeel
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Image 1 of 12: Dam khafeef/ Ta'qeel: (light/ heavy blood) Describing one's personality or behavior through their blood constitution. Not 'positive' or 'negative' blood types, nor density! If your hemoglobin is light, you are lighthearted with an appealing humor. On the other end of the scale, if your jokes are annoying, you’re 'heavy-blooded' or unbearable!

Inshallah
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Image 1 of 12: Inshallah: God's 'word' works its special power beyond the Arabian peninsula and has become as ubiquitous as the facebook 'like'. While it gets an easy translation as God Willing, it's a lot more (and less) for the Islamic culture. In Arab lands - for Christian & Muslim - it's become a smart byword for work-shirking or buying time & options.

Na'eeman
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Image 1 of 12: Na'eeman: You scrub up well! Na'eeman is the greeting or blessing after showers and hair do's. Not every culture congratulates you after every bath or hair cut, but since hygiene is a crucial component of Islam, it’s not a surprise that this crops up in Arabic! There’s even a reply in kind - Allah yen'aam aalaik/i!

Toz alaik feek
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Image 1 of 12: Toz aalaik/ feek: A mild insult derived from the Turkish word for salt 'toz'. In Arabic it loosely translates as a fart in your general direction, a derisive remark expressing hot, empty air or bombast. Who cares, or gives a toss. A derived common casual idiom of inconsequence is 'sho jab toz la marhaba' (What's it got to do with anything?)

'Ou'balik - the Arab wishing a single a future marriage
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Image 1 of 12: 'Ou'balak/ik: Arabs enjoy highlighting your single status at weddings by wishing the 'same' for you. This customized blessing is often dreaded by singles who'd rather not feel their bachelorhood warrants the wedding assembly's prayer for their safe delivery into marital bliss. A verbal relation of the bride tossing her bouquet to the maidens.

Bitmoon
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Image 1 of 12: Bitmoon: This is a quality of being in good favor with somebody who is likely to give you an easy ride. You carry favor points with this person. You're in their good graces and can call up favors, assert your influence, maybe even demand things (though that might be pushing it: this person is your homeboy, not your parent!).

Mad'ouk
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Image 1 of 12: Mad'ouk: The Arabic word for experienced, toughened or well-worked can carry both negative and positive connotations. It can mean tried and tested, or imply that one has had a mean round of life experience and is qualified for any task. Although it can mean street smart, it can also insinuate that someone is knackered, hardened and haggard.

Mardi Aalai the Arabic mother blessing
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Image 1 of 12: Mardi aalai: To be parentally blessed - the highest accolade of all. Once you have secured 'ridda', the mother's blessing, you sit back and enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling that your mom approves your lifestyle. Reaching this blessed state of being 'mardi' in planet Arab is more crucial to life happiness than wasta; wretched is he who foregoes ridda.

wasta
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Image 1 of 12: Wasta: While this special favor-card surely expedites its way across cultures, the potency of wasta in the Arab world is not to be belittled. The big W keeps everything ticking from your medical care to your car engine. In a world heavy on permits, stamps and dinars you're best keeping your wasta close and your wasta-rich friends closer!

Across cultures and languages and even religious traditions, words and often concepts can get lost in translation. Nuances and subtle undertones don't stand a chance on border crossings and cryptic idioms, well they can just forget it!

The Arabs as much as the next people, maybe more, have their own unique phrases and peculiar linguistically- contained notions that cannot conceivably be translated into any other frame of reference. Neologisms and international-speak are a force for universal understanding, making languages more transferrable and providing solutions for the overlaps and fringes, yet some vestiges are still intrinsically owned by the language and its people. 

The German and Japanese languages are renowned for their untranslatable turns of phrase - in German, they have a word for the cowardly individual who wears gloves during a snowball fight: ‘Handschuhschneedballwerfer’. Try saying that with a mouth full of kanafe! In Japanese, they have the beautiful ‘yugen’, which occurs when you have an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and mysterious to be described.

Arab unity?

With the lyrical nature, poetic nuances of Arabic and the zaney notions of its speakers, there are plenty of words or idioms that simply have no precise equivilent in any other language. Some turns of phrases in Arabic are idiosyncratic to Middle Eastern culture - they have their origins in Islam or a bedouin tradition that isn’t replicated elsewhere. The denizens of Araby have their own esprit d'escaliers and we are taking away their exclusive rights to them for a moment to share a dozen of our favorites.

From Inshallah (God willing) to being able to tell someone they have heavy blood as an insult to their sense of humor, check out our editors' picks of the most untranslatable or precious Arabic words and phrases that wouldn’t work anywhere else but the colorful, rowdy and sand-swept Middle East! Indeed, some Arabs won't have a clue, since, need we remind you that the Arabic language groups loosely different dialects and speakers across the board who speak in variations of the classical, formal tongue. 

 

If you enjoyed these Arabic classics, join the conversation! Have we missed out any goodies? Got any of your own to add? "You glassed me" or "burning your guts"? Share some of your favorite hard-to-translate Arabisms in the comment space below!

 

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"[H]ygiene is a crucial component of Islam." Oh, dear. You don't know much about Moslems, do you...

Anonymous (not verified) Wed, 08/28/2013 - 18:33

Haha this is great! I would say though that the concept of gh'eereh/3'eereh is a good one as well as dala'a/dala3 - I've had immense difficulty trying to translate these two. Especially dala3 when you wanna talk about it positively - like daloo3et mama.

DuaWrites (not verified) Wed, 08/28/2013 - 15:14

saennie - now my arabic is not top level, but in my family we use this to denote the smell of like dirty underwear a la dried urine. I cant quite explain what things smell this, but it is a distinct nasty smell. Or

Anonymous (not verified) Wed, 08/28/2013 - 14:50

Mal Omak or Mal Ahlak مال امك / مال اهلك it is an Egyptian phrase that means ( non of your mother or family business) simply non of your business.

Anonymous (not verified) Wed, 08/28/2013 - 08:27

Amazing job! Thank you :)

anass (not verified) Tue, 08/27/2013 - 21:02

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