What are the world’s favorite words? It’s a great question because there’s no one way to answer it. Everyone can – and does – have an opinion. If we turn to great authors for inspiration, J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Allen Poe both claimed cellar door as the most beautiful word combination in the English language. Shakespeare was particularly sweet on “sweet”, while Joseph Conrad was obsessed with impenetrable. But favorite words and most beautiful words aren’t necessarily the same thing.
If we look at the entries to Babbel’s recent My Favorite Word competition, in which people were invited to make a short video about their favorite foreign word, some interesting trends and patterns emerge.
Here are the five most popular videos:
And the grand prize winner:
So what patterns do we see in these results? Let’s try to break these down into larger categories of words.
Fun & Quirky Words
Many words were seemingly chosen because they’re fun, quirky or lexically appealing. Papagei (“parrot” in German), porridge, ludicrous, twinkle, flip-flop, pompon (French for “pompom”) and ananas (“pineapple” in various languages) are all quite playful. Staubsauger or ‘dust-sucker’, the German word for vacuum-cleaner, deserves an honorable mention. This trend should come as no surprise: when you learn a foreign language you often appreciate its idiosyncrasies more than a native speaker would.
Unique and untranslatable words were also very popular, with a particularly German focus. Two entrants chose Fernweh, a German word that means longing for faraway places – and another chose a less well-used synonym, Wanderlust. Schadenfreude made an appearance, as well as Weltanschauung (a particular world view) and Kummerspeck, excess weight gained from emotional overeating – literally ‘grief bacon’. Other untranslatable words included mångata, the roadlike reflection of the moon on water, and inshallah.
Positive Words (Good Vibes Only)
There were a great many videos to do with love and happiness: English words included happy, heart, together, peace, and hope, German had heiraten and Liebespaar (“to marry” and “a married couple”), while Spanish speakers contributed juntos and abrázame (“together” and “hold me”). Naturally there was a cat video for the word cute.
A few entries featured clever multi-language puns and wordplays. Who knew that tigerkaka meant marblecake in Swedish? There was a play on llama involving como te llamas and cute furry animals, and in another video one man became Zwillinge (twins in German), then Drillinge, Vierlinge and finally Mehrlinge. Poubelle, the French word for rubbish bin, combined a bell and a gracefully floating bowel movement.
The Appeal Of The Unfamiliar
We should bear in mind that a competition where people choose their favorite word in their own language would have given very different results. But the flip side is that here we see what draws people to words in other languages. There is a tendency to gravitate toward difference, toward words that have meanings or sounds that are unfamiliar. Just as we love food from other cultures, so too do we fall in love with the curious sounds and concepts of foreign tongues. If you’re a native speaker, you might be able to look at these words with fresh eyes – and discover that ludicrous is, indeed, ludicrous.
What’s your favorite word in another language, and why?