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14 Unique and Untranslatable Arabic Words and Expressions

There’s no way this is the first article about untranslatable words you’ve ever seen (maybe you’ve even seen articles about untranslatable Arabic words already).

You may even be thinking: “How can you write an article about untranslatable words without explaining, and then just translating, each word?”

You’ve got me there.

But to ease your doubt about untranslatable words in Arabic, keep in mind that there’s a progression to how this works. There’s also a progression involved in realizing what it means for a word to be “untranslatable,” which I’ll try to outline below:

First, you’re amazed at the world of languages out there, and you love the idea of certain words that have no equivalents in expressing meaning.

Then, you get a little jaded and think that no matter what the concept is, there’s always going to be some way to explain it to others.

But then, you get more involved with other cultures and really start to use a very different language in a natural way, and eventually realize—there really are some things that are extremely difficult to describe in other words.

It’s that diversity and that spark of awe for the human race that should keep you coming back to articles like these, and learning new things.

That said, here’s our list of untranslatable Arabic words! Here, you’ll find beautiful untranslatable Arabic words in Arabic language to color your conversation like a native. I’ll also be roughly converting untranslatable Arabic words to English words, so you can have an excellent grasp of how to use them.

Let’s learn some untranslatable words in Arabic vocabulary!

Table of Contents

  1. Sweet Nothings
  2. Insults and Put-Downs
  3. Describing Others
  4. Feelings and Expressing Them
  5. Conclusion

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1. Sweet Nothings

Flowers

Every language and every culture has beautiful words to express love and affection, and this is no different when it comes to Arabic phrases with no English equivalent.

But love is a feeling so uniquely shaped by one’s own culture that it’s next to impossible to truly express your love in another language.

For that reason, even the trendiest English speakers in Arab countries (and there are many) will pretty much always prefer to use their native languages to talk about love.

You just can’t quite get the words out in another way.

Here are some beautiful Arabic untranslatable words that Arabic speakers use when they can’t think of anything in another language that really captures how they feel. Hopefully, these untranslatable words in Arabic grammar also show you what the concept of love looks like in Arabic culture!

1- شو ناعمة (šū nāʿmih) - Lebanese

Kittens, warm towels, fuzzy sweaters—soft things are nice things, generally speaking.

But we don’t tend to just up and say so in English. We certainly don’t just tell people they’re soft. Worst-case scenario, people might assume you’re telling them to lose weight if you make a remark on their softness.

In Lebanon, though, it’s a high compliment. This is the sort of thing you’d hear from a wife to her husband, and back again.

2- ʿعشق (išq) - Many dialects

What about when the word “love” itself isn’t enough to show what you’re feeling?

That’s where the word ʿišq comes in. ʿišq refers to love in its purest form. The strong bond between two people that have spent a lifetime together, or the unconditional affection someone has for their sweetheart.

You wouldn’t just up and say that you haveʿišq for somebody. Instead, you’d probably read this word in a novel or hear it in the narration of a film.

3- تقبرني (teʾburnī) [you bury me] - Lebanese

Does that sound a little dark to you? It shouldn’t. In Lebanon, it’s used in a cheerful and upbeat way!

The meaning expressed by this phrase is that you hope you die before the other person, because the alternative is too sad to bear. You love them too much.

You would much rather pass away before them than bear the pain of life without them. That’s the feeling mothers have for children and husbands have for wives—and that’s something that can barely be expressed in words.


2. Insults and Put-Downs

Just as words can express love, other words may be even better for expressing hatred.

All languages can be extremely, perhaps outright disturbingly, creative with insults. And virtually all of them sound completely ridiculous when brought into another language and cultural context.

A true master translator doesn’t even try to find equivalent words—they just come up with their own crazy insults in the other language that might match.

Let’s start with what I think is one of the overall minorly insulting Arabic words with no English translation.

1- روح بلط البحر‬‎ (rūḥ balleṭ el-baḥr‬‎) - Lebanese

Literally, this is an invitation for someone to go and tile the ocean. What would possibly drive someone to say this? Let’s look at the example untranslatable words in Arabic sentences below:

A: “I’m really going to buckle down this weekend and do all my homework in two days.”
B: “Oh yeah? Go tile the ocean while you’re at it.”

In other words, suuuuuuure you are.

It’s not obscene in any way and, to be honest, isn’t particularly insulting. It’s more like casual teasing or brushing off. Someone has made some grandiose claim about what they can do, and you’re not buying it for a second.

2- خايِن (ḫāyen) - Many dialects

It’s a grave insult in many places to be called a betrayer. Even if you’re joking, it might sour the mood of the conversation pretty quick while you rush to explain yourself.

When you look in an English-Arabic dictionary for “snake,” it’s possible that ḫāyen will make an appearance. When you look it up the other way, you’re likely to find words like “traitor,” “scoundrel,” or “turncoat.”

For that reason, calling someone a ḫāyen is something that isn’t going to go over lightly. You’re talking about someone who’s got no morals at all, who would just as soon sell out his own mother to save his own skin in a lie.
Snake in the grass? Backstabber? ḫāyen!

3- طاح حظك (ṭāḥ ḥaẓẓak) - Iraqi Arabic

May luck abandon you!

This is what you say when you’re pretty annoyed at someone and you just want to be a little petty. It’s the kind of thing old men might say when they’re losing at chess in the park.

And this one is the perfect example of something that just isn’t said at all in English. As far as I’m aware, there are virtually no luck-based insults in the English language in common use today.


3. Describing Others

Man with Face Hidden

Next on our list of untranslatable Arabic words in Arabic language are those for describing people.

There are so many people in the world today, and even if we limit ourselves to the Arab world, we see people from every imaginable walk of life and every conceivable background.

It’s only natural that you would grasp for words when trying to talk about somebody else whose past experiences, or present character, are simply special in some way.

Here are some Arabic words that are untranslatable, but are perfect for describing people in certain situations!

1- نعيماً (naʿīman) - Egypt

Did your friend suddenly show up with a new haircut? Does it look pretty good?

Simply give them a smile, a nod, and a naʿīman.

It captures the feeling of “Not bad!” and “Looking sharp!” at the same time, without necessarily being an inappropriate compliment for someone you’re not close to.

It also has the connotation of cleanliness. In Islam, hygiene is very important, and therefore looking clean and fresh is something to be admired.

2- بقرة (baʾarah) - Many dialects

Okay, “cow” isn’t particularly hard to translate.

But when you call someone a cow in English, you’re almost always commenting on their physical appearance or stature.

In Arabic, what you’re really talking about is their clumsiness, particularly when they break things or give you some kind of bump or bruise. Even little kids aren’t exempt from this kind of criticism.

It’s pretty hard to get that feeling across in English. “You have a certain…bovine finesse about you.” Doesn’t quite seem right, does it?

3- مدعوك (madʿūk) - Many dialects

Somebody who’s been through the wringer, someone who’s learned from the school of hard knocks—that person is madʿūk.

This single word captures the unique, and sometimes contradictory, concepts of “world-weary” and “street-smart.” It literally means “rubbed soft” and it’s not too hard to see the imagery there. If you’ve spent your life a wanderer, you’ve been rubbed and pummeled and beaten down before.

At the same time, though, a person who’s madʿūk knows their way around. They’d better—otherwise they might not have made it this far. Therefore, the word also captures the meaning of “street smart,” for better or for worse.


4. Feelings and Expressing Them

Jumping Girl

Perhaps in this section more than any other, cultural background is paramount.

In many cultures, for instance, there’s no word for “bless you” after a sneeze. That’s something in the West that we’ve gotten used to using, while in other places there are completely different traditions for speaking about what goes on in daily life.

1- حشومة (ḥšūmah) - Morocco

You could try translating this as “shame” or “taboo” but that misses the subtle connotations by a long shot. To really understand ḥšūmah, you’ve got to be part of a society which is way less okay with losing face in public than a lot of Western cultures are.

In Morocco, it’s very important to fit in culturally with everything around you. Not doing so is, well, taboo.

You can say that a particular act is ḥšūmah when it makes you feel a little guilty, because you know doing it was wrong religiously or culturally. For instance, it’s ḥšūmah to walk on people’s carpets with your shoes. That’s their house, that’s where they pray, and that’s where they need it to be clean.

2- بتموني (betmūnī) - Many dialects

Betmūnī is a phrase that takes the concept of “don’t worry about it” and elevates it to new heights.

It’s kind of like a way to instantly show that you’re okay with whatever someone is asking you to do.

But be careful. With that kind of influence, you’re also open to manipulation. It’s possible that you do so many favors that they may be taken for granted.

3- يعطيك العافية (yeʿṭīk el-ʿāfyeh) - Lebanon

You see a cleaner, a builder, and a ditch digger hard at work. Or you see a good friend or family member come home tired after a long, long day. What can you say to them to show your respect for their labor?

In English, not much; maybe something like “Really nice work,” or “Wow, that’s impressive!” But in Lebanese Arabic, yeʿṭīk el-ʿāfyeh is the perfect fit. It’s something respectful and gracious that lets others know that you appreciate the effort they’re putting in.

It means: “May God give you power.”

4- ٱلْحَمْدُ للهِ (Al-hamdulillah) & إن شاء الله‎ (Inshallah)

Yeah, these get their own special section. If you read an English book with Arabic speakers in it, the authors are likely to sprinkle their dialogue with these words about every other line or so.

But if the author didn’t clearly understand what these mean, it’s blindingly obvious in the text.

Inshallah is a Romanized contraction of in sha allah, which literally means “if God wills” or “God willing.”

You’d use it to express the sense of “hopefully (something will happen).” Oftentimes, it’s tagged on to the end of a sentence to sort of temper the strength of a desire or wish, as the speaker reminds themselves that nothing is guaranteed in life.

And it has another sense, too. You know when young kids ask their parents for things and the parent replies, “We’ll see,” instead of outright saying “no?” Same thing with Arabic-speaking parents and inshallah.

You may already be using this phrase without knowing it. In Spanish and Portuguese, the words ojalá and oxalá, respectively, both come directly from Arabic and are used all the time to say “I hope.”

Alhamdulillah is another religious expression that has entered the Arabic speech of virtually everyone. When you give good news, you add al-hamdullilah to give your thanks to God for the blessing.

Literally, it means something like: “Thanks/praise to the God.” By using the definite article, it’s implied in the very grammar of the expression that there’s just one God. Therefore, alongside inshallah, al-hamdulillah is used by all adherents to monotheistic religions—Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike—all over the Arabic-speaking world.

These two words, then, turn out to be pretty understandable in English. What’s not quite as translatable about them is the frequency with which they’re used.

Religion enters speech significantly more in Arabic than in many other languages, and if you simply translate the words without paying attention to when people tend to use them, it’ll come off as clumsy and stilted.


5. Conclusion

Just because there are lots of Arabic words that don’t translate well into English doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty that go the other way.

For instance, the word “access” in English is difficult to get across in Arabic—the best equivalent is وصول (wusul), meaning “arrival.”

Languages are funny like that.

Human experiences all over the world just don’t line up quite right. Neither do the words that we use to describe them.

Before you go, drop us a comment and let us know which of these Arabic untranslatable words is your favorite! Were our untranslatable words in Arabic phrases helpful to you? Start with a bonus, and download the Must-Know Beginner Vocabulary PDF for FREE! (Logged-In Member Only)

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Author: Yassir Sahnoun is a HubSpot certified content strategist, copywriter and polyglot who works with language learning companies. He helps companies attract sales using content strategy, copywriting, blogging, email marketing, & more. You can learn more about Yassir at his website YassirSahnoun.com.