Are certain Greek words untranslatable?
The Greek language, one of the oldest languages in the world, has many words and phrases with no English equivalent. We provide you with a list of untranslatable Greek words, their etymology, and meaning.
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Popular Untranslatable Modern Greek Words:
Μεράκι – Meraki
There is no exact equivalent of the word “μεράκι” in English. This noun describes the love, devotion, and passion that a person displays for his/her art, craft, profession, field of study or hobby. It can also be used for day-to-day chores, such as cooking or cleaning, as long as they are completed in a ritualistic way. The word describes a part of the Greek culture that places quality over quantity and dedicating time and care in the creation of something.
For example, let’s use tea as an example. If you sloppily dip a tea bug into a cup of hot water for a couple of seconds, you are definitely not making tea with meraki (and probably not even tea). On the other hand, if you carefully select the type of tea you fancy drinking, let it steep and brew, and if you pour it into a nice cup, stir it nicely and maybe add some other ingredients in it, then you prepared your tea with meraki.
The word actually derives from a Turkish word: “merak”. The Turkish term has a broader meaning and can often be used to describe concern, worry, but also curiosity.
«Έχει μεράκι για την δουλειά του.»
Translation: “He has meraki for his job.”
Meaning: “He is passionate about his job.”
«Σου έφτιαξα αυτόν τον καφέ με μεράκι.»
Translation: “I made this coffee with meraki.”
Meaning: “I made this coffee with love.”
Φιλοξενία – Philoxenia
“Φιλοξενία” is an ancient Greek word that is still used today. It derives from the verb “φιλώ” (to love in ancient Greek; to kiss in modern Greek) and the noun “ξένος” (foreigner, stranger).
If you look up a Greek to English dictionary, the translation you get will probably be the term “hospitality”, which defines the relationship between a guest and a host. Although this is the most accurate translation you can get in English, “φιλοξενία” has a history that takes up way back in time.
“Φιλοξενία” was a set of rules defined by the gods, and specifically of Zeus Xenios. It describes the attitude towards people who are not part of the household, strangers or people from a different origin. The ethical obligations of “Φιλοξενία” are: a) to be offered to anyone, whatever his or her financial, political or other position is b) to respect everyone equally c) to never raise weapons against each other (the host and the visitor). The material obligations are: a) to welcome and take care of the visitor b) to offer him/her a meal c) to offer him/her a bath and/or the opportunity to sleep d) to offer him/her goodbye wishes and gifts.
Many modern Greeks live by these rules, offering food and care to their guests. Hotel guests in Greece are often surprised to find welcoming gifts, such as food baskets, which are usually charged in hotels abroad. Although “φιλοξενία” is not followed religiously by all Greeks today, it is still something that is highly associated to the Greek culture.
«H Ελλάδα φημίζεται για την φιλοξενία της.»
Translation: “Greece is well-known for its philoxenia.”
Meaning: “Greece is well-known for its hospitality and welcoming attitude.”
Κέφι – Kefi
If you ask a native speaker to describe the noun “κέφι”, he/she will probably say it is about being in a good mood. Although this is not completely wrong, having “κέφι” is more than simply having a good mood.
“Κέφι” is something that you have or you can lose. It is also something you can make, do and ruin. Is the feeling of light-heartedness, the desire to be spontaneous or the willingness to do something with your whole heart. It can describe the positive ambiance in a room, the party-spirit at a joyful event like a wedding, or simply the interest in doing something.
The verbs used along with “κέφι”, such as “χάνω” (to lose) and “χαλάω” (to ruin/mess up), imply that the normal state for humans is to be happy and have a passionate and joyful view of life. If you lose your “κέφι”, fear not; you can also find it.
This word derives from a Turkish word, “keyif”, which has a similar if not the same meaning as in Greek.
«Έχασα το κέφι μου.»
Translation: “I lost my kefi.”
Meaning: “I am not in a good mood anymore.”
«Δεν έχω κέφι για δουλειά σήμερα.»
Translation: “I do not have kefi to go to work today.”
Meaning: “I am not feeling like going to work today.”
«Βρήκε το κέφι του.»
Translation: “He found his kefi.”
Meaning: “He is happy again.”
Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.
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