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15 Fascinating Untranslatable Finnish Words We Need in English

Finland Languages
by Tiina Kokki May 9, 2018

If you have ever heard any Finnish, you are most likely familiar with words like sauna, Nokia, and muumi. Here are just 15 examples of untranslatable Finnish words you can use to pepper into sentences and impress Finns, or start working into your English vocabulary and hope it catches on.

1. Vahingonilo

Neighbors fancy car got scratched? A-list Miss Perfect farted on live TV show? Your worst rival had to cancel their job interview due to family issues? And it made you smile? That is vahingonilo. It’s to (secretly) enjoy someone else’s misfortune.

2. Sisu

Dictionary translates sisu as “stick-with-it-ness”, and that is exactly what it is. It means to be stubborn, determined and sometimes stupidly brave, an expression used to describe the national character of a Finn. It means we will run head first to the brick wall until the wall gives in if we really believe there is something worth the trouble on the other side.

3. Kyykkyviini

In Finland, alcohol stronger than 5.5% is sold only in government-run bottle shops called Alko. Every Alko is organized the same way and looks the same. The wine on the top shelf is for the rich folk and bottom shelf is more suitable for a student budget. Kyykkyviini is the low-income-choice. It literally means “squat wine” — the cheaper and often not that great quality wine. You need to kneel down to get this from the bottom shelf.

4. Tosikko

A person who takes life a bit too seriously and is often considered to completely lack a sense of humor.

5. Kaamos

Kaamos is officially translated as “polar nights”, the period of time between November and February when the sun sets for three months. It is a word with huge emotional power: it is used to describe a range of feelings from longing (for sunshine) to lack of enthusiasm to depression. It means long dark days and bad weather, hibernation of social life and inspirations. It is the period when the whole country goes to power saving mode just to return with more energy and ideas in spring.

6. Löyly

The steam you get in sauna when you throw water on sauna stove is called löyly. It is believed there is löylynhenki, the spirit of steam living in each sauna providing a decent heat for its users. But you should be careful not to piss off löylynhenki, as it can easily burn off your ears!

7. Vihta/vasta

There is an eternal debate in Finland as to which of these words is the correct one to use. Folks living in the east of Finland use vasta while the western Finns go to sauna with vihta. Both mean the same thing, vihta/vasta is a birch whisk used for whipping oneself or each other in a sauna. It is a lot more relaxing than it sounds. Birch leaves release essential oils that can heal inflammations and clean the skin, while whipping does wonders to your blood circulation. Despite it sounding like a rough way to show intimacy, vihtominen is considered an expression of approval.

8. Lintukoto

Literally translated, lintukoto means “bird’s home”. Finland is often described as being one; a safe and wealthy place where people are protected from — and sometimes ignorant of — the issues of the world outside its borders.

9. Peräkammarin poika

A special kind of man, usually found in countryside taking care of his folk’s farm. He never found a partner amenable enough to move into the remote farm to live with him and the prospective in-laws and thus was forced to live alone with (online) porn as his only form of comfort. That is peräkammarin poika, literally translated as the boy who lives in the room at the back of the house.

10. Hankiainen

Around February, when the sun returns to make short visits above the horizon again, it melts the top of the snow just enough to make it hard. When it is solid enough to walk on top of a meter of snow without falling in, it is hankiainen.

11. Kalsarikänni

Surprisingly well-known — and loved — outside Finnish borders, kalsarikänni literally means to get drunk (alone) at home in your underwear with no intention of going out.

12. Myötähäpeä

Myötähäpeä is a shared sense of shame. It can refer to someone who knows they screwed up or is yet to understand they did. Look at any parent watching their kid on reality show making a fool out of themselves and you know what myötähäpeä means.

13. Pilkunnussija

A person whose only purpose in life is to make sure you understand how bad your grammar skills are. That is pilkunnussija, literally translated as “comma fucker”.

14. Tuliainen

When visiting someone’s house, it is not expected but considered polite to bring something for the host: ground coffee, baked goods, candy for the kids. That little something is called tuliainen. It can also refer to a souvenir, preferably as kitschy as possible.

15. Talkoot

A concept rooted in Finnish culture, talkoot is a bit tricky to explain. It means volunteering (often involuntary), wanting or having to do something for the common good. For example, most of the housing complexes hold pihatalkoot twice a year to clean up the common outdoor areas. As a resident, you are invited to volunteer to help and expected not to decline. Recently talkoohenki, “the spirit of volunteering” has made it to national media big time as the President Sauli Niinistö invited the whole nation to join vauvantekotalkoot, “a baby making bee,” to stop the descending population growth.

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