Lesson #266: Some English Words That Are Difficult To Translate In Other Languages

Whenever you learn a new language, there are always words that you find challenging in themselves but also difficult to translate into your own language (or vice versa).

I searched recently for some such words in English, and then realised that one of the very first works of English literature that I ever read as a girl – George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) – contained them all!

✏️ What is more, nearly all of these words have more than one meaning, which adds to their complexity and the difficulty of trying to translate them into other languages.

Since I have only listed five such words here, why not take the time to memorise them individually? Because if you simply try to translate them into your own language (that is, try to find your equivalent word for them), you might end up missing the uniqueness of what these words mean in English. 🇬🇧 🇺🇲

Don’t skip them even if you think you know them. 🧐

You may well be surprised by how many meanings they each have!

I wrote a couple of Lessons on George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss over the past year, in which I talked about the novel in more detail than I do today.

🕯️ You can have a quick look at them here (Lesson #231 on reported speech in The Mill on the Floss) and here (Lesson #155 on the past progressive, simple past, and past perfect continuous tenses).  

Tom and Maggie Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1910)
Image Credit: The Jenson Society, NY, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Maggie Tulliver is one of my favourite characters in Eliot’s works – a loving, curious, tomboyish yet kind girl who adores her brother Tom and lives in a mill (a building that has machinery to mill flour) on the bank of the river Floss.

For now, however, we will narrow our focus on these five words and how The Mill on the Floss illustrates their correct and colourful use.


📝 Silly

This is a commonly used word in English, especially when talking with close friends or with children.

In fact, when I met a friend for a coffee and offered to pay my share, she answered me, ‘No, don’t be silly!’

Now if we take ‘silly’ here to literally mean ‘foolish and absurd, lacking in common sense or judgement’ – which is its general meaning – it would sound like my friend was calling me a fool!

But that wasn’t the case. 😊

In fact, ‘silly’ has several different meanings:


✏️ ‘A bit stupid and not clever

It usually means ‘a bit foolish’ but is not as strongly negative and critical as the word ‘stupid’.

📙 ‘She began to dislike Mr Riley: it was evident he thought her silly and of no consequence.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)


✏️ As a fond or endearing word meaning ‘loveably naïve or foolish’

‘Silly’ is sometimes used fondly. It can mean ‘loveably foolish or naïve’.

For example, in the famous children’s book series on Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin fondly calls Pooh Bear ‘Silly old bear’ as a term of endearment.

⚠️ All this said, you should avoid using ‘silly’ to describe someone or their actions unless you know them very well and they understand that you are using it in a playful, friendly way! ⚠️

Not everyone likes it, and for my part, anytime someone tells me ‘Oh, don’t be silly!’ I still have to remind myself that it is just a very British/Irish expression and not something to be taken literally.

📙 ‘”Yes, I know you think I am silly.”

“I think you are perfectly charming.”

“And my silliness is part of my charm?”‘

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphases mine)


✏️ ‘Naïve, too innocent, lacking common sense, not appreciating the real value of something

📙 ‘There was nobody but Maggie who would be silly enough to believe him …’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

This short phrase ‘silly enough to …’ is one that you will hear from time to time in English.

✍️ It refers to a kind of innocence that can have harmful consequences, and sometimes even a lack of understanding for something’s value.

For example,

✒️ He was granted a scholarship to study at Harvard! I can’t believe that he would be silly enough to refuse it.

In the above quotation where Maggie Tulliver is described as ‘silly enough to believe him’, we know that poor Maggie is seen as so naïve as to believe her deceitful brother, Tom – she lacks common judgment to realise he is not speaking the truth to her.


✏️ ‘Foolish in an embarrassing way

Whenever you hear the sentence ‘looks silly’, this is probably the meaning that is being applied.

⚠️ And again, it should only be used with people who know you well and won’t be offended by what you say!⚠️

📙 “But you must change brooches, Maggie; that little butterfly looks silly on you.”

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

In this next quotation, the poor man Bob feels a bit embarrassed and uncomfortable after a comment his wife makes. For this reason, he is now ‘looking rather silly’:

📙 ‘”Well, well,” said Bob, looking rather silly. “Go an’ see after the taters [potatoes], else Mr Tom ’ull [will] have to wait for ’em [them].”‘

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

📝 Shallow

‘Shallow’ has two main meanings: ✏️ one being physical and ✏️ the other more metaphorical or figurative.

✍️ It basically means ‘having very little depth’.

In other words, its antonym (or opposite) is ‘deep’.

📙 ‘Bob … passed on, choosing, however, to walk in the shallow edge of the overflowing river by way of change.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

The ‘shallow edge … of the river’ is the river’s edge or bank that has the lowest level of water.


In this next quotation we find that ‘shallow’ has a more figurative meaning:

📙 ‘“I will bring you the book, shall I, Miss Tulliver?” said Stephen when he found the stream of his recollections running rather shallow.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

Stephen’s thoughts (his ‘recollections’ or memories) are gradually becoming simpler, less deep and thoughtful than he would like them to be. For this reason, he interrupts the conversation to ask Maggie if she would like him to bring her a book.

✍️ ‘Shallow’ is a word that we often use in English to describe people or conversations that seem to us to be simple and meaningless. For example,

✒️ I don’t always enjoy family reunions as the conversations can be rather shallow.

This sentence might be referring to conversations like ‘small talk’ or that aren’t serious, deep, and interesting.

📝 Nincompoop

This is a word that means a ‘fool or stupid person’. ✏️

It is thought to come from a legal Latin phrase ‘non compos mentis’ (meaning ‘not of the right mind’). One of its first appearances in literature was as an entry in Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1756).

📙 ‘… Tom was not without strong reasons when, in confidential talk with a chum, he had described uncle Pullet as a nincompoop, taking care at the same time to observe that he was a very “rich fellow”.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

📝 Nice

I’m sure you have heard this word many times before!

✏️ It is often used to mean ‘pleasant and attractive’ or even ‘giving pleasure or satisfaction’.

✏️ It can also mean ‘slight or subtle’.

For example,

There is a nice difference between working hard and working effectively. ✒️

It can also mean ‘refined’. Jane Austen often used it in this sense in her novel Mansfield Park:

📘 “… if we are so very nice, we shall never act anything.”

– Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (emphasis mine)

📘 “I do not know how it is,” said he; “but we seem to want some of your nice ways and orderliness at my father’s.

– Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (emphasis mine)

Here are some more examples using ‘nice’ as taken straight from George Eliot:


✏️ ‘Nice’ meaning ‘pleasant’, ‘attractive’

📙 ‘Maggie thought it would make a very nice heaven to sit by the pool in that way, and never be scolded.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)


✏️ ‘Nice’ meaning ‘slight or subtle’

As I could not find suitable examples of this particular meaning in The Mill on the Floss, I searched in two other famous George Eliot works for the ideal examples:

📗 ‘Nice distinctions are troublesome.’

– George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (emphasis mine)

📘 ‘… there were nice distinctions of rank in Middlemarch …’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)


✏️ ‘Nice’ meaning ‘refined, delicate, mannerly, orderly, proper’

📙 ‘”We’ve got nothing nice for a lady to eat,” said the old woman, in her coaxing tone. “And she’s so hungry, sweet little lady.”’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘”You may set your mind at rest on that score, Mrs Tulliver,’ said Mr Riley, ‘for Stelling is married to as nice a little woman as any man need wish for a wife. There isn’t a kinder little soul in the world; I know her family well. She has very much your complexion—light curly hair. She comes of a good Mudport family, and it’s not every offer that would have been acceptable in that quarter. But Stelling’s not an everyday man. Rather a particular fellow as to the people he chooses to be connected with.”‘

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

I have quoted this last quotation in full because I would like you to see how ‘nice’ Mrs Sterling is seen to be: she is described as kind, fair (‘light curly hair’), of good family, and high connections. This then is ‘nice’ in its broadest sense!

📝 Awkward

✏️ You are probably aware of one definition of this word, meaning ‘causing embarrassment, unease, or inconvenience’.

✏️ There is another meaning, particularly in British English, of ‘causing difficulty’, ‘being hard to deal with or to do’.

Let’s look at these two meanings through contextual quotations:

📙 ‘”As I look at the full stream, the vivid grass, the delicate bright-green powder softening the outline of the great trunks and branches that gleam from under the bare purple boughs, I am in love with moistness, and envy the white ducks that are dipping their heads far into the water here among the withes, unmindful of the awkward appearance they make in the drier world above.”‘

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘Tom, too, had come up to Lucy, but he was not going to kiss her—no; he came up to her with Maggie, because it seemed easier, on the whole, than saying, ‘How do you do?’ to all those aunts and uncles: he stood looking at nothing in particular, with the blushing, awkward air and semi-smile which are common to shy boys when in company—very much as if they had come into the world by mistake, and found it in a degree of undress that was quite embarrassing.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

You can see here how although Tom is embarrassed and uneasy, he isn’t ‘awkward’ in the second sense of the word – he isn’t ‘causing difficulty’ or ‘being hard to deal with’. 👉 This shows how understanding the different meanings of a single word can help you avoid misunderstanding its original meaning!

📙 ‘This observation of hers tended directly to convince Mr Tulliver that it would not be at all awkward for him to raise five hundred pounds …’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘This was a puzzling world, as he often said, and if you drive your waggon in a hurry, you may light on an awkward corner.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

And finally, one of my favourite quotes in this book uses ‘awkward’ to refer to what is considered ‘embarrassing, plainly simple, or causing unease’:

📙 ‘We perhaps never detect [notice with a critical eye] how much of our social demeanour [outward behaviour or attitude] is made up of artificial airs, until we see a person who is at once beautiful and simple: without the beauty, we are apt [prone to, likely] to call simplicity awkwardness.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphasis mine)

A beautiful thought, isn’t it? ✨

So you now know of five English words, with several meanings each, which cannot be easily translated into other languages.

✍️ If you have any questions about how to use them correctly in a sentence of your own, you can always send me your question or sample sentence through my query form here. Just remember to write Lesson #266 when you send them to me, and I will be happy to give you direct feedback.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)