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When One Word Defines an Entire Culture

January 12, 2012

Every culture contains a few words that cannot be directly translated into another culture or its language. These words are capable of defining their respective cultures by bringing forth their differences. If a culture contains a word of which there is no equivalent in other cultures, then that word embodies a fundamental aspect of the culture to which it belongs. One example of this is the Danish word ‘hygge.’ This word has no direct translation into English, but the closest approximation in English is ‘coziness.’ Wikipedia defines hygge as “relaxing with good friends or loved ones, often while enjoying good food and something to drink or creating a more friendly atmosphere by lighting a few candles.” Hygge is so important to the Danish people that it is the title of the first section of the Wikipedia article on the “Culture of Denmark.”

Which words in American English have no direct equivalents in other cultures, and what do they say about the U.S.? I suspect that in this case these words might be slang terms, but I am not entirely sure.

When you develop a culture for your writings, perhaps you should create a word that is capable of summing up its elements. What are the core aspects of your culture? What are the fundamental values of its people, and how do these values impact their everyday lives? If you can make a word that represents your culture, then you truly understand the culture you have created.

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