Arabic's Most Untranslatable Words & Expressions

This piece was dug up from my archives! Originally appearing on some four years ago, it remains one of my favorite compilations, and I have thus reproduced it here.

Arabic is one of the most artistic and complex languages in the world. In fact, some of its words and phrases are so lush with imagery and meaning that they bear no equivalent in any other language. Nuances and undertones inevitably get lost in translation, and rich idiomatic expressions are butchered altogether.

Join me on a linguistic tour of Arabic’s most untranslatable and lyrical words, expressions, and sayings. Don’t trouble yourself trying to unravel them to a non-speaker—just have pride in being part of something precious!

To2borneh or to2brineh: literally, it means “you bury me,” and the first thought that springs to mind is deeply troubling. But the connotative punch this word packs is absolutely beautiful. You love someone so much that you can’t imagine a life without them, and you’re hoping you pass away first. Chillingly endearing.

You love someone so much, you hope you will pass away first, or that they will bury you;
literally "to2borneh" or "to2brineh" (photo source).

Trabi7 jmeeleh: this is quite easily the tramp stamp of every true Lebanese. You render a favor unto someone, but rather than doing it out of the goodness of your heart, you remind the recipient of it as soon as you either need a favor in return or, more heinously, to blackmail them. It’s like keeping a tally of your deeds and exploiting them as leverage whenever the occasion lends itself.

Inshallah or Nchalla: many Arabic-speakers shy away from the firm “yes” altogether and opt for this word, which literally means “God willing.”
Are you coming tonight? Inshallah.
Did you pass your exam? Inshallah.
Will you ever marry me? Inshallah. (If you hear this, drop him/her in and run!)

It’s an effective tool to buy you out of any guarantees and hold you blameless in case things don’t go as planned. Never strike a bargain with “Inshallah.”

Na3iman: in this compact word, Arabic gives new meaning to the English expression “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Na3iman is the blessing you bestow on someone who’s just showered or had their hair cut and/or styled. What’s even cuter is the requisite response: “Yin3am 3aleik/3aleiki,” which reciprocates the blessing.

Image titled Dry Yourself After a Shower Step 2
"Na3iman" is the blessing you bestow on someone emerging from the shower (photo source).

3a2belik or 3a2belak: most young people cringe in contempt when someone wishes them this, a word repeated endlessly at engagements, weddings, christenings and the like. Basically, by invoking this, you are wishing the same blessing upon the target. Who needs a constant reminder of their bachelor status at every marriage ceremony? Loathsome.

T2eel ‘dam: imagine measuring one’s character by the weight or density of their blood. In Arabic, someone who’s described as heavy-blooded is dreadfully annoying, on par with a plague. Often this expression gets truncated to “t2eel” or “t2eeleh” and “ma 2at2alak” or “ma 2at2alik.” You never want to be the object of this phrase.

Wasta: perhaps the quintessence of Lebanese-hood is wasta, a powerful word used to indicate powerful connectedness. If you’re blessed to have a wasta, you have an unfair advantage over others in getting to your object of desire. Wastas are like the Monopoly card that lets you “Pass Go and Collect $200.” Never question it if you’re fortunate enough to have one: simply enjoy!

Photo source

Toz 3aleik or toz 3aleiki: this is a playful expression which in no figurative terms sends a fart in the recipient’s direction. It’s used to denote hot, empty air or even general apathy—“toz” alone can mean “who cares” or “what’s it to me?” Graduating up the filthy totem pole, “khara 3aleik” or “khara 3aleiki” literally means “poo on you,” and, depending on the tone, it can be used humorously, endearingly, or menacingly.

Bayyid wij or tobyeed wij: if this phrase were directly translated to English, it would mean “whitening one’s face.” It sort of resembles “powdering one’s face” but in the figurative sense. If someone asks you to “bayidleh wijjeh,” they’re supplicating you to make them proud and elevate their status. If you’re guilty of “tobyeed wij,” you’re kissing ass, or brown-nosing. Funny how the colors don’t transfer between Arabic and English! Photo 9

Bitmoon or bitmooneh: you’re in someone’s good graces if they utter this to you. Somehow you’ve earned brownie points with them, and they’re willing to carry you on their shoulders if that’s what it takes to please you. You get to call the shots, but don’t overdo it or risk being labeled “t2eel ‘dam”!

"Bitmooneh!" or "You got it!" (Photo credit: Justin Case, Getty Images)


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