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Untranslateable Words San Francisco Needs

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If you’ve ever spoken multiple languages, you know that there are some words that just don’t translate from one language to another. If you do only speak English, I’d urge you to consider how to begin explaining “on fleek” to a Dutchman or what a “Kardashian” is to a Bosnian refugee. Luckily, we have people like Howard Rheingold, who finds words in languages that don’t quite translate into English but which convey universal social understandings. Here are some of his most poignant untranslateable words from the book They Have a Word for It that we need to start using in the Bay Area asap.


Muki-mvuki (Bantu)
To shuck off clothes in order to dance. [verb]

You ever go to Sweater Funk at the Knockout? How about 80s night at Cat Club? Or like…any day at Dolores Park? Then you know the need to rip off your jacket and stride out onto that dancefloor like a modern day Travolta. We layer in San Francisco, because we have to. But the only things you don’t need to dance are clothing and shame.

Mokita (Kiriwina, New Guinea)
Truth everybody knows but nobody speaks. [noun]

This is a particular favorite of mine that applies to life’s most delicate and complicated situations. This could be the friend of yours who shows up to a party and proceeds to get hammered for the 5th time that month and he/she jokingly says, “maybe I’m an alcoholic” but you and your other friends look at each other and think that it isn’t a joke anymore…that’s mokita. Or when you sleep with your best friend after a night of drunken strip Yahtzee but agree not to talk about it, when suddenly you’re both at a beach bonfire staring at each other because you remembered what the other person looks like naked. That’s also mokita. Gotta keep the peace, you know?


Majie (Chinese)
To curse the street. [verb]

This one seems pretty self-explanatory and it is (Octavia at Rush Hour amirite), but it also applies to pedestrians. In our case, I’m talking about tourists who walk way too slowly in front of you down Market in rows of 4. Why? Why do they have to be 4 people across? Are they some kind of human barrier to your enjoyment of life? I mean, for god sakes, I have to get to Uniqlo and buy a new t-shirt. My time is more important than everybody else’s!


Holopis kuntul baris (Indoesian)
A phrase uttered in order to gain extra strength when carrying heavy objects. [noun]

Between the groceries, laundry and emotions we have to carry around these fucking hills, you sometimes feel like gravity is against you. Never fear, there are words to get you where you need to be. It’s like, energy work…from the universe…right? Like, spiritual cosmic oneness with the inner strength inside you. Something like that.

Frotteur (French)
Man who rubs up against stranger in crowds. [noun]

I feel like you don’t really need an explanation for this one if you’ve ever ridden a Muni, BART, or been to a parade. Coincidentally, Folsom is happening as I write this.


Plunderbund (Dutch)
Group or alliance of financial or political interests that exploits the public. [noun]

Look, I’m not here to be political. I don’t want to cause a riot of epic proportions around the topic of gentrifying or techies or whatever other buzz words we’ve been using to describe the current state of this city. I don’t want to restate how much corporations take from the little man or rehash the not-quite conspiracy of Big Banks. All I’m going to say is: Uber is moving to Oakland.

Katzenjammer (German)
Monumentally severe hang-over. [noun]

If you don’t get this word, I can’t help you.

Farpotshket (Yiddish)
Something that is all fouled up, especially as the result of an attempt to fix it. [adjective]

Maybe you were at a dinner party and made a dumb soup that you put too much salt in and as a result then dumped in a bunch of wine but now you’re left with salty wine water. Maybe you were helping that cute girl down the street move in but dropped her TV and broke it. We’ve all got good intentions but inevitably you’re going to ruin something and be the reason why we can’t have nice things. Like the local government. Wait, what? Dammit, I said I wasn’t going to go there.


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Candace Cui - Actual Unicorn

Candace Cui - Actual Unicorn

At age 2, I was getting run over by a bike in an alley in China. At age 8, I was avoiding man-o-wars on Tybee Island. At age 14, I was overdrinking sweet tea while running through the woods barefoot. At age 20, I was learning Art History and how to drop it low. At age 25, I was making fun of drum circles at Dolores. At every age, I am charming the fuck out of you. Just wait, it'll happen.