What can brands learn from ‘untranslatable’ words?

Why can a list of words we’ve never heard before make us smile?


Did you know ‘Hyggelig’ is Danish for ‘cosy’ with a bit of ‘safe’ thrown in?

What about ‘abbiocco’? It’s not Maserati’s 2015 coupe. It’s Italian for ‘the sleepy feeling you get after eating a large meal’.

Or ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ – the German word for ‘being alone in the forest and feeling a connection to nature’.

These words make us smile because even if the word can’t be translated easily, the feelings can be. Recognising an obscure but familiar feeling is like recognising a familiar face in a crowd.

But some of these “untranslatable” words are translatable – ‘snuggly’ seems pretty accurate for ‘hyggelig’.

snuggly“Hyggelig” snuggly“Snuggly”

So why doesn’t hearing these English words have the same effect on us?

Because the brain is, in large part, a pattern recognition machine.

Patterns that occur repetitively require less attention from us. But when the writer introduces a novel element, it forces us to take more notice.

This is why a ‘walnut’ desk is more interesting than a ‘wooden’ one. ‘Walnut’ is specific, unusual.

‘Wood’ is so generic it no longer forces our brain to consider it, and therefore conjure up a mental picture. (That’s also why clichés don’t work.)

Walnut is different. It’s meaningful.


A recent study by Millward Brown showed that consumers pay more for brands that are ‘meaningfully different’.

Which is why a brand that makes ‘walnut’ desks is worth more than a brand that sells ‘wooden’ desks.

Especially when you let people know that walnut is more durable than other woods. And that you can see intricate figured patterns in the grain of the surface of this particular Burled Walnut desk.

If you invent a unique and indispensable product, then happy Tetra-Pak to you!

But most brand directors can successfully differentiate their brand in the eye and ear of the consumer by creating a distinctive visual and verbal identity.


We help brands define who they are, and we help them to discover how they are different. If you’re ready to talk, Chris is ready to listen.