6 Filipino Words that Don’t Have Direct English Translations

As an employee of Lexcode Inc., an ISO-certified language translation and interpretation company, I can’t help but be fascinated by how words translate from one language to another. Moreover, having graduated with a degree in English Studies, I’ve become particularly interested on how words translate to English. They say that, for every culture, more words are created to describe things that are more manifest in its reality. That being said, I came to wonder whether there are also realities that are uniquely Filipino, words even Google Translate or highly skilled language experts find it difficult to translate in English. It turns out there are! After doing some research, I listed some of the well-known Filipino words that don’t directly translate to English. Here are six of them!

1. Tampo

Have you ever experienced being slighted or offended by someone? I’m pretty sure it made you mad, but not to the point of blowing up in rage, so you just pouted your lips, crossed your arms, and sulked quietly in a corner until that person noticed you and begged for your forgiveness.

It’s difficult to explain that kind of feeling, right? You can’t say you’re pissed off because that would be too extreme. Disappointed is close, but not quite. You may say you’re sulky, but it still won’t perfectly describe how you feel. However, Filipinos use the term tampo to refer to that feeling of not being angry and not being happy either after being ignored or insulted by somebody. It may also refer to that “pretend tantrum” a person puts upon to elicit apology from the other party who has hurt him or her. Do you remember the last time you’re tampo toward someone?

2. Lambing

If you believe that tenderness adequately defines what lambing is, then you’re wrong. Think of it this way: a tad of affection + a dash of tenderness + a pinch of sweetness = lambing. In the Philippines, they say that, when a person is tampo, he or she just needs a little lambing, that is, a bit of wooing and cajoling in a warm and loving manner, and everything will be fine again. For instance, in couples, when the woman is tampo because the man forgot about their anniversary, he could patch things up with her by making lambing—surprising her with flowers and chocolates, writing and singing her a love song, and sincerely apologizing.

3. Pasma

Have you ever been told by another person not to take a cold shower after a long, hard day of work or not to stay in an air-conditioned room after performing a vigorous activity under the scorching heat of the sun? In the Filipino culture, it is said that doing so would result to pasma, a “folk illness” attributed to the interaction of heat and cold. Filipinos believe that there are certain circumstances in which the muscles of the body are hot and, thus, shouldn’t be abruptly brought into contact with cold to prevent experiencing tremors, numbness, and pain.

Although there are Filipinos who testify that pasma is real as they’ve experienced such symptoms after sweating or exposing themselves to heat, it’s not recognized yet by contemporary medical science as a health phenomenon. As such, the term can’t be directly translated into English.

4. Usog

Usog is a phenomenon unique to the Filipino culture, where an infant or a toddler feels afraid, develops a fever, or gets sick after being greeted by a visitor or a stranger with a strong personality (physically big, energetic, domineering, etc.). The child is said to be “overpowered” or nauusog by the presence of that person. Filipinos believe that, to counter the effects of the usog, that visitor or stranger should apply some of his or her saliva on the child’s forehead, arm, abdomen, or foot while saying “Pwera usog… Pwera usog…” before leaving the house.

Similar to pasma, usog is just a folk belief that hasn’t been proven yet to be a medical phenomenon. Thus, no English word could exactly capture the concept of usog.

5. Basta

When Filipinos say basta, it’s definitive. Anything said before basta was uttered is believed to be valid, true, and final. It is said with a kind of insistence that can’t be challenged or argued upon. No ifs and buts.

Although basta can roughly be translated as just because, it won’t quite cover the essence of the word. All I know is that the expression is frequently used when a person doesn’t feel like expounding more on what he or she feels or means. Basta, it’s difficult to explain!

6. Sayang

Filipinos usually say sayang to express their frustration over a near-miss. For instance, when a slowly spinning basketball slid out of the ring after an eternity of suspense, an all-too-familiar reaction from the audience would be, “Sayang!,” accompanied by a caveman head scratch.

The closest translation for the Filipino interjection would be, “What a waste!” However, it doesn’t fully convey that overwhelming feeling of panghihinayang (regret) about something. How sayang that it doesn’t have a direct English translation, right?

There you go—six Filipino words that don’t translate to English. If you’re a Filipino just like me, I bet you know a whole lot more—kilig, gigil, pikon… the list goes on and on and on! On the other hand, for non-Filipino readers, can you think of words in your own language that don’t have direct English translations? I’m absolutely certain you have a bunch of them in mind!