Chinese Emotions for which There Are No English Words

A friend pointed me to this article: Emotions For Which There Are No English Words. A nice intersection of some of my favorite topics: semantics, translation, psychology, and infographics. You’ll need to go to the site for the full infographic (it’s zoomable), but here are the Chinese words that make an appearance:

Some Emotions For Which There Are No English Words

The Chinese words are:

> 心疼: The feeling somewhere between sympathy and empathy, to feel the suffering of loved ones.

Literally, “heart aches.” This one isn’t too hard to understand.

> 加油: A form of encouragement as if you are fighting along with the person, backing them up.

Literally, “add oil.” It does take a little bit of time to get used to how when you say “加油!” you’re actually putting yourself on the same team as the enouragee, somehow. (Similar deal with Japanese 頑張って.)

> 忐忑: A mixture of feeling uneasy and worried, as if you can feel your own heart beat.

(That one is also kind of famous for its characters… good ideogrammatic fun.)

> 纠结: Worried, feeling uneasy, don’t know what to do.

纠结 probably gets my vote for “newest super useful slang word that you won’t find in a textbook,” but it’s not just a word-fad that’s going away anytime soon.

I really like this next Japanese choice. It’s once of my favorite Japanese words:

> 懐かしい: Missing something. The sense of longing, being nostalgic for something, someone, or somewhere.

The weird thing about the word 懐かしい is how often it’s used as a complete sentence, usually as an exclamation. When you’re not used to the word, and you see someone confronted with something dear but forgotten from childhood, and then they bust out with “nostalgic!” it seems very odd at first. It’s like one word to say, “oh wow, that really takes me back.”

Just thinking about using 懐かしい is kind of 懐かしい for me. (I do miss Japanese!)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. 懐かしい really took me a while to wrap my head around and even now, after nearly a decade of not speaking Japanese that word comes to mind in those times when no English word fits. It’s those times when a wave of memories hit as nostalgia would but with a more positive emotional charge.

    Another good one is “kiaⁿ-su” from Taiwanese. It’s feeling of fear that you’re losing out to others somehow. Like the people in Shanghai that like to cut in line and push on to the subway before you can get off are being kiaⁿ-su.

  2. How can you mention 忐忑 without linking to the 龚丽娜 song?!

  3. Really there are no English words to describe these emotions? Jiayou is more of an interjection than a noun although I suppose that is almost moot in Chinese. This list seems to be a bit of s stretch.
    纠结, for example. Is indecisiveness not an equivalent? And is there really a ‘feeling’ between sympathy and empathy that even deliberate speakers can use consistently?

  4. Is 加油 really an emotion? I never thought about it that way.

  5. There are a lot of nifty Japanese oneliners; among my favourites are
    あほくさい(阿呆臭): so idiotic it’s not funny
    めんどくさい(面倒臭);pain in the ass-y
    サムい(寒):seeing a gag that was supposed to be funny but missed the completely

    Most Japanese adjectives can be used on their own as a full sentence, this is not specific for 懐かしい

  6. I don’t really know about the Japanese.
    But I always thought 加油 was like the Korean “Fighting!”.

  7. Not an emotion, but the fact that Chinese has a word for “mouth feel” I think tells a lot about exactly how the texture food is appreciated. 口感 (kou3 gan3) for anyone interested.

  8. There’s another Chinese word from the infographic, which I’d never seen before (and I’ve been speaking/learning Chinese for quite a few years now): 豁达. Quite cool.

    As for “加油”, I would definitely not classify it as an emotion (would anyone say “I feel very 加油?”). It’s not easily translatable in English as an expression, but it’s definitely more of an interjection anyway… (“allez !” or “courage !” in French, “ánimo !” in Spanish etc.)

  9. 韩丹尼 Says: January 26, 2013 at 9:14 am

    懐かしい sounds like the German word sehnsucht:

  10. As others stated above me, 加油 is not really an emotion but an interjection. And English has it as well, more or less – e.g. Go John! You can do it! Woo! etc.

    As for 纠结 I would translate it as “to be at a loss”. I wouldn’t really classify it as slang either – more an extended meaning of the original sense 缠绕联结 (“to be intertwined”). But it is an interesting emotion nonetheless. I was planning on doing a blog entry on Chinese emotions; so far I’ve only touched upon English emotions and Chinese personalities.

    • I agree that 加油 is not really an emotion. It’s more of an encouraging phrase (with an associated emotion, perhaps?).

      As for 纠结, “at a loss” feels a bit too formal to me. I’d translate it as something closer to “conflicted,” as in, “I feel so conflicted!”

  11. This is an interesting meme, but I don’t see that it covers the root and exact definition of the English word “empathy”. That is very different from sympathy and other words/feelings in between.

    As I understand Chinese, after living and working here for over 3 years and studying the language, talking to many Chinese about the topic, etc. is that the root meaning of the word empathy (the awareness and understanding of the feelings, thoughts, and point of view of others) does not exist for the Chinese. And many have said if the word, or comparable word/meaning does not exist in the language, than people have no way of learning it.

    This is why, I think, many foreigners feel that the Chinese appear be rude, uncaring, and selfish towards others in some situations. It may not be that they are these things, because maybe they are just not aware of it. From a societal and cultural perspective, have they been taught to take in to consideration or think about the feelings, state, and perspective of other people? Especially those outside their family or living area (village, town, city)?

    I like China and the people, and have chosen to stay here for a considerable time. But this one issue stands out for me as a big difference between China and cultures from the West. And it’s one that I explain to many non-Chinese as a major difference.

    I am curious if others feel this same way about the meaning of Empathy and if Chinese language has a similar word/meaning for the root meaning of the word.

  12. […] of the post, there are some words that just don’t translate between languages. Check out this interesting article to learn a few Chinese words for feelings/emotions that can’t really translate directly to […]

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