The word mamihlapinatapai is derived from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the "most succinct word", and is considered one of the hardest words to translate. It has been translated as "a look that without words is shared by two people who want to initiate something, but that neither will start" or "looking at each other hoping that the other will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do".[1]

A romantic interpretation of the meaning has also been given, as "that look across the table when two people are sharing an unspoken but private moment. When each knows the other understands and is in agreement with what is being expressed. An expressive and meaningful silence."[2]

A literal translation could be "to make each other feel awkward".[3]


The word consists of the reflexive/passive prefix ma- (mam- before a vowel), the root ihlapi (pronounced [iɬapi]), which means "to be at a loss as what to do next", the stative suffix -n, an achievement suffix -ata, and the dual suffix -apai, which in composition with the reflexive mam- has a reciprocal sense.[4]


The term is cited in books and articles on game theory associated with the volunteer's dilemma.[5][6]

It is also referenced in Defining the World in a discussion of the difficulties facing Samuel Johnson in trying to arrive at succinct, yet accurate, definitions of words.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Peter Matthews, Norris McWhirter (1994). The Guinness Book of Records 1994. p. 392. ISBN 978-0-553-56561-4. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
  2. ^ "Drachenfutter, Saudade, Onsay". The Telegraph. 27 March 2005.
  3. ^ Bitong, Anna (3 April 2018). "Mamihlapinatapai: A lost language's untranslatable legacy". Retrieved 2023-07-07.
  4. ^ Zuckermann, Ghil'ad; Shakuto, -Neoh Shiori; Quer, Giovanni Matteo. "Native Tongue Title: Compensation for the loss of Aboriginal languages". Australian Aboriginal Studies (Canberra) (1): 55–71.
  5. ^ Kollock, Peter (1998). "Social Dilemmas: the anatomy of cooperation" (PDF). Annu. Rev. Sociol. 24: 183–214. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.24.1.183. hdl:20.500.12749/3338. JSTOR 223479.
  6. ^ Fisher, Len. Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life. p. 76.
  7. ^ Hitchings, H. (2005). Defining the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. p. 92. ISBN 0-374-11302-5.