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.
We can tell an author’s favorite pet words quite easily by the frequency with which they use them. Finding the public’s most popular words presents a different challenge. The kind of people who write in to the BBC and Merriam-Webster tend to be, as the latter puts it, vocabularians (people who make up new words) or hardcore dictionary devotees.
If we look at the entries to Babbel’s recent My Favorite Word competition, where people were invited to make a short video about their favorite foreign word, some interesting trends and patterns emerge.
Here’s a video….
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.
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.
We should bear in mind that a competition where people choose their favorite word in their own language would have given very different results.
However, the flip side is that here we see what draws people to words in other languages. There is a tendency to gravitate towards difference, towards 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 exotic 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.
James Lane was born in Sydney, Australia. After completing his degree in Media and Communications, he moved to Vietnam where he taught English and curated the young learner summer program at a language school in Hanoi. He has worked as an independent theatre producer and film assistant director.