Words That Mean Something Completely Different in Other Cultures

Have you ever come across a word in another language that sounds familiar, but its meaning is completely different from what you expected? Language is a fascinating aspect of culture, and it's no surprise that words can vary greatly in meaning from one culture to another. In this blog post, we'll explore some intriguing examples of words that mean something completely different in other cultures.

False Friends: Words that Deceive

False friends are words that look or sound similar in different languages, but their meanings are completely different. These linguistic deceivers can lead to hilarious misunderstandings or embarrassing situations. Let's take a look at a few examples:


In English, the word "gift" refers to something given voluntarily to show affection or appreciation. However, in German, the word "gift" means "poison." Imagine the confusion when an English speaker receives a gift from a German friend and exclaims, "Oh, what a lovely poison!"


While "sensible" in English means practical, level-headed, or reasonable, in French, it means sensitive or emotionally aware. So, if you're in France and someone tells you that you are "sensible," don't be offended. They are actually complimenting your emotional intelligence!


In English, feeling embarrassed means experiencing self-consciousness or shame. However, in Portuguese, the word "embaraçada" means "pregnant." So, if you ever feel embarrassed in Brazil, be cautious about using this word to describe your feelings, or you might end up with some awkward looks.

Cultural Concepts Lost in Translation

Some words are so deeply rooted in a culture that they are challenging to translate into other languages. These unique cultural concepts often reflect the values, traditions, and way of life of a specific community. Let's explore a few examples:


Schadenfreude is a German word that describes the pleasure derived from someone else's misfortune. It's a complex emotion that captures the mix of delight and guilt that can arise when witnessing the downfall of others. This word has no direct equivalent in many other languages, making it a fascinating cultural concept to ponder.


Originating from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, this word holds the Guinness World Record for the "most succinct word." Mamihlapinatapai refers to the meaningful look shared between two people who both desire to initiate something, but neither wants to take the first step. It beautifully encapsulates the complexity of unspoken connections and the hesitation to act.


Hygge is a Danish concept that encompasses a feeling of coziness, warmth, and contentment. It involves creating a comforting atmosphere, enjoying the simple pleasures of life, and fostering a sense of togetherness. While it can be challenging to encapsulate hygge in a single English word, it represents the essence of Danish culture and the pursuit of a balanced and joyful life.

Words That Reflect Cultural Priorities

Language often reflects the priorities and values of a particular culture. The following words illustrate how different cultures emphasize certain aspects of life:


In Spanish, the word "sobremesa" refers to the time spent lingering at the table after a meal, chatting and enjoying each other's company. It emphasizes the importance of social connections and savoring the moment, rather than rushing off to the next task. This concept is deeply ingrained in Spanish culture, where meals are seen as opportunities for bonding and relaxation.


Ubuntu is an African philosophy and word that emphasizes the interconnectedness of humanity. It encapsulates the idea that a person is only a person through other people. It highlights the importance of compassion, empathy, and community in the African culture, promoting the concept of shared humanity and mutual support.


Originating from Sweden, lagom means "just the right amount." It represents the Swedish approach to balance and moderation in all aspects of life. It encourages avoiding extremes and finding contentment in having neither too much nor too little. Lagom promotes a sustainable and harmonious way of living, reflecting the Swedish cultural values of equality, fairness, and simplicity.

Language is a window into different cultures, and the words they use reveal unique perspectives and values. From false friends that deceive us to untranslatable cultural concepts and words that reflect cultural priorities, exploring the meanings behind foreign words can broaden our understanding of the world. So, next time you come across a word from another culture, remember that its meaning may be more nuanced and intriguing than you initially thought.