athleisure n : casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use

nomophobia n : fear of being without access to a working cell phone

revenge porn n : sexually explicit images of a person posted online without that person’s consent especially as a form of revenge or harassment

waggle dance n : a series of figure-eight movements performed by a bee to indicate the direction and abundance of a distant food source

The other day I spotted this article describing new words or phrases recently added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I know these stories are meant to incite annoyance and dismay among language snobs, and words like those above often do have that effect on me (except for waggle dance, which is just delightful). However, this subject also led to me once again pondering words that should exist.

During the 18 months I spent in Vancouver after college, I lived in a massive house with tons of rooms and month-to-month rent. In order words: I lived in a long-term hostel with MANY roommates (30+) from all around the world. Since there were dozens of languages, accents, and cultural references represented and various levels of comfort with English, there were many moments of confusion and hilarity. We were always translating for each other and trying to find a middle ground of understanding. One of my favorite aspects of this chaos was discovering terms in other languages that didn’t have an English equivalent.

Schadenfreude, for instance, is German for “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.”

We all know the feeling, and I assume most of us hate it and can acknowledge that it’s a terrible sentiment. We know that when Michael puts on a few pounds, it doesn’t mean we’re in any better shape. We know that Carol doing poorly on that test won’t help our grade (unless it’s graded on a curve…okay, bad example, but you get the idea). Yet we sometimes still count the troubles of others as our gains, or at least feel a glimmer of enjoyment. What a great word for a troubling, but probably universal human feeling.

This caused me to wonder whether anyone had come up with a word to describe a similar sentiment: feeling displeasure about someone else’s good fortune or success. Your friend just got an incredible new job, won a trip to Italy, has the world’s most adoring, perfect significant other puppy, or just ate 12 cookies with no apparent consequences. You’re happy for them on some level, but you also feel that wave of not quite competitiveness, not quite jealousy, but…well, whats-the-word? I’ll let you know if I track that one down.

Anyway, I’ve always loved the word schadenfreude, which the English-speaking world is adopting due to our lack of noun equivalent. One fateful day, I noticed that The American Scholar was having a little contest to see who could come up with the best words for terms in other languages. When I saw that schadenfreude was on the list, I had to give it a go. Plus, a free tote bag (and therefore infinite glory) was at stake!

While this ended up being surprisingly challenging, I  submitting “malrevel” for schadenfreude because I liked the sound of it and I felt that it captured my experience of this term: dwelling in a bad feeling. I submitted a made-up word for each option, and then abruptly forgot all about the whole thing.

A few weeks later, I received an email notifying me that one of my submissions had won and that a free tote bag was on it’s way! As was fame and glory! Malrevel was on it’s way to Webster!

…except that malrevel was not chosen. I had won for what i thought was my worst submission. They were looking for an English equivalent of frisson, French for “the thrilling shiver of watching a horror movie, riding a roller coaster, or ringing the doorbell of a new lover” (their definition, not mine), and I had come up with … Nervicity.

After being notified about my victory, I was half expecting my word creation to somehow become integrated into the English language. Maybe the “new word” experts at Merriam-Webster would contact me and say something along the lines of, “Hey, we really like your word. Can we give you $(undisclosed but enormous sum) and add it to the dictionary?” I’d play it cool and say, “Let me talk to my lawyer” (aka my sister) and we’d draw up some contracts.

None of that happened, but NPR did have a segment on the contest (in which nervicity is not even kind of mentioned). Plus, I have a sweet tote bag.


Do you have any favorite foreign words with or without English equivalents? Any suggestions for totally made up new words? Shout ’em out below!

P.S. – Special shout out to The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin for having a similar nerdy interest: “For some reason, I like working on some permanent, undefined research project. I feel compelled to make lists for foreign words that describe concepts that English can’t convey (flaneur, darshan, eudaimonia, Ruinensehnsucht, amae, nostalgie de la boue)…and hundreds of other topics.”