Every City Has a Signature
Untranslatable words reveal cultural relevance
Hygge in Copenhagen, Denmark
The frost of a Copenhagen winter can actually feel warm if you practice one of the fundamental elements of Danish culture: "hygge." You’ve most likely seen hygge depicted in stock photos around Christmastime—the ones that show great friends in sweaters sipping hot cocoa around a fire. That actually happens in Denmark! The Danish make it a priority to get cozy with friends, share a meal, or lounge by a fire, giving their city a soft, welcoming feeling.
Prozvonit in Prague, Czech Republic
Remember calling people collect and screaming out a quick message after the beep instead of your name? The Czech use their own version of that today with the goal of saving some cash. In practice, the caller lets it ring once, hangs up, and waits to be called back, demonstrating the creative frugality for which the Czech people are known for in hard times. And hard times they’ve had. The “prozvonit” is just one small way that illustrates the Czech Republic’s resilience and brilliance.
Saudade in Lisbon, Portugal
Strolling down the tiled streets of Lisbon, there’s an intangible sense of sweet melancholy both heard and felt. Saudade, what can be described as “beautiful longing,” may have originated during the Great Portuguese Discoveries, when both Portugal and Spain were out on a tear, discovering things like Brazil and America. Sailors would leave, and those left behind would sing Fado music, which puts saudade into words. As the wistful, melancholy music of Fado is still heard in the streets today (both from traditional singers and new), you can’t help but feel the sweet, sad message as it passes from the singer’s heart to yours.
Jam Karet in Jakarta, Indonesia
Jam Karet, or “rubber time,” is what's called of the attitude of many Indonesians who allow for time to flow and stretch. A meeting that is set to start at 9am might not start until 9:18, for example. But the elasticity is less about the lack of promptness and more about the feeling towards it. Indonesians think of those missed minutes as time to wait patiently or reflect, as there is no such thing as wasted time.
Inat in Belgrade, Serbia
"Inat" is a distinctly Serbian word and, according to many Serbs, an innate cultural trait. It is an attitude of defiance and self-preservation, a stubbornness so strong that sometimes results in self-destruction. It seeped into national culture under Ottoman rule when Serbians were told to change their religion or die. Many chose to die rather than give up their faith.
Mono No Aware in Tokyo, Japan
Buddhism has thrived in Japan since 552 AD and its influence on Japanese culture is reflected in the phrase “Mono No Aware,” or the understanding that beauty is fleeting. Japanese culture celebrates annual cherry blossoms, the tradition of a refined tea ceremony, and even a new fashion style—knowing all along that these things might be gone tomorrow.
Pena Ajena in Mexico City, Mexico
Pena Ajena (or vergüenza ajena) can be directly translated as “someone else’s shame.” It can be described as the embarrassment you may feel for someone else as they tragically embarrass themselves. It’s common at horrible open mic nights, when watching shameful stories of politicians on the news, or during the audition round of American Idol. Sometimes it’s funny, but sometimes (if it’s your loved one) it’s excruciating.
Hüzün in Istanbul, Turkey
Hüzün is the way Turks describe a collective melancholy often felt in Istanbul today, probably born from the city’s tumultuous past. Turkish author Orhan Pamuk describes it as “the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window” and says it is central to Istanbul culture. “I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early; of fathers under street lamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags, of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter...”
Gigil in Manila, Phillipines
If you only learn one Tagalog word, maybe "gigil" should be it. It’s a word usually accompanied by a squeal and a giggle, and it calls attention to the bubbly emotions of many in the Philippines. Defined as the “trembling or gritting of teeth in response to the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute,” you may gigil when you see a puppy, a baby, or this.
Nunchi in Seoul, South Korea
Nunchi (or lack thereof) is the reason why so many OkCupid dates succeed (or totally bomb). In Korea, nunchi is the social savvy that tells someone when to speak and when to hold back. Those who possess nunchi are probably well-liked. Those without (nunchi eoptta) probably don’t get that second date. The concept of nunchi illuminates the importance in Korean culture of always putting your best foot forward.
Photo Courtesy of Alex E. Promios
Cities and places fill us with certain feelings. There’s a flair in the flavors and sounds of Miami fill us with the insatiable urge to dance, while a stroll through a leafy Chicago neighborhood makes us want to greet every passerby with kindness. We may not notice, but we can feel the spirit of a city, apparent in the way the locals greet each other, a certain resilience after defeat, or swelling pride after a hard-won independence. But how do we put that into words? One language may be (and often is) insufficient for all the cultures of the world. Words like the Serbian “inat” and the Danish “hygge” can express the heart of the cultures and their cities. Check out these beautifully hard-to-translate words here.
And, in the meantime, tell us about your signature moments using #goodcitiesproject
The GOOD Cities Project is a five-month collaboration with Ford, exploring how we make our cities and how our cities make us. As part of the project, GOOD and Ford have commissioned cultural creatives across the country to help illuminate and celebrate the rich and vastly diverse points of view that make up each city's individual character. Each week, we will be exploring attributes that we believe are fundamental to living meaningful urban lives.