Hippies and Teddy Boys: Culture-bound Terms


When a term is culturally bound, its meaning is so tightly linked to the place and time in which the word arose that it cannot be faithfully translated into another language without first putting the concept of the term into a greater context.

In paper given at the 18th Biennial Dictionary Society of North America Conference, Donna Farina discussed culture-bound terms in Russian. One such culture-bound word that she discussed is stilyagi (also spelled stiliagi), which literally means “stylish people” in Russian. Stilyagi is a term used to describe members of a counterculture movement in the Soviet Union that took place between the 1940s and 1960s. The stilyagi embraced American culture in terms of style, music, and political thought, rejecting Soviet politics and morality. In a society where nonconformity was frowned upon, the stilyagi dressed in a hyper-American style, almost a caricature of the fashion in the early years of the movement. The stilyagi also embraced popular American music like jazz, swing, and later rock ‘n’ roll. Because this sort of music was so hard to come by in the Soviet Union, and even at times banned, stilyagi would pirate these records on discarded x-rays—the cheapest, most durable material available because of wartime shortages—and distribute this pirated material via the black market. These x-ray recordings, eerily imprinted with images of bones, were colloquially referred to as “bones” or “ribs.”

Stilyagi is an excellent example of a culture-bound word because there is no real equivalent in English. In fact, as early as the 1950s, the Russian term was used in English-language publications in lieu of the writers attempting to pinpoint an English equivalent. While some writers likened the stilyagi to teddy boys, this equally culture-bound term refers specifically to rebellious youths in the UK during the same period, youths who faced an entirely different social and political climate than their counterparts in the Soviet Union. To further support the untranslatable qualities of this term, the 2008 Russian film Stilyagi was released in the United States with the title Hipsters. While hipster is certainly a loaded term in English, it fails to evoke the concept of the stilyagi to an American audience with completely different cultural associations.

Of course, sometimes terms that seem to be culture-bound expand beyond their original sense and are ultimately used in other cultures with new meanings. Take for example the word hippie. A recent article in The New Yorker mentions that in Syria, “The small number of non-Islamists among the rebels are often socialists…and are referred to by their peers with an English word: ‘hippies.’” Hippie started out as a word to describe a member of the 1960s youth culture in the United States in which established institutions were rejected, though today its geographic and political bounds have moved far beyond its original sense as seen in The New Yorker piece. In contrast, stilyagi, when used in English, references a specific time, place, and cultural context.

What are some culture-bound terms that you know and use?


  1. Will c -  December 19, 2014 - 8:24 pm

    Chinese is chock full of untranslatable words, but one of the most common is 曖昧, pronounced aye may. The word actually has several meanings, but now it’s most commonly used to describe that time in a relationship between two people that is right on the borderline between friendship and romance, where every glance, gesture and utterance is heavy with the intimation of hidden or inchoate feeling.

  2. Jackie Moleski -  December 19, 2014 - 8:01 pm

    Amiga/amigo – friend (feminine/masculine) as opposed to novia/novio – Spanish. The first set means friend the second set means girlfriend/boyfriend – someone you date. But in English, you have to explain a male friend is a FRIEND not the guy you’re dating.
    Meanwhile, Greek has four words for love, one of which means “close friendship”.

  3. Pat McNamara -  June 26, 2013 - 5:57 am

    another word which is very culturally specific is used in Ireland, mixing both Irish and English, the word craic which means the party/fun/atmosphere in a pub or at some music event.

  4. Helen -  June 19, 2013 - 6:22 am

    Would you say that SNL’s wild and crazy guys were a satiric take on the stilyagi?

  5. Eu Tyto Alba -  June 18, 2013 - 3:57 am


    Origin: Japanese
    Literal meaning: “house”

    Meaning in Japanese culture: a person who is obsessed, likely owning lots of a specific merchandise. Often translated to English as “nerd”, though the obsession is not necessarily rooted in technology.

    Meaning in Western culture: anime or manga fanatic, Japan-oholic, or in the most severe cases—-weeaboo. More often than not, in my experience, “otaku” is self-ascribed.

    This difference of understanding has unfortunately led lots of westerners to embarrass themselves amidst Japanese nationals.

    “Weeaboo” itself, Euroboo, and other related variants are some of my favorite culture-bound terms…..because I’m surrounded by ‘em! D:

  6. Peter -  June 17, 2013 - 11:40 pm

    What about that good old Australianism “bastard”. It has almost infinite meanings depending on context and the speaker and listener/s.

    Without wanting to drag the tone too low brow, a similar thing happens with the other very common Anglo Saxon expletive and qualifier. You know the one I mean. Its uses are endless in the hands of both the profane and the imaginative.

    But try explaining either of these terms to Asians, and you find yourself explaining scenarios rather than providing dictionary definitions.

  7. Peter -  June 17, 2013 - 11:34 pm

    The Thai words “hikiat” (high-key-at) and “grengjai” can mean respect for someone, also a desire to “not disturb” one’s equanimity, but are also often signifiers of fear of a powerful person or fear of embarrassing oneself. Their application and occurrence in social or work settings can be quite disconcerting for an egalitarian.

  8. Suzanna J. -  June 17, 2013 - 2:43 pm

    In Armenian we say “geegyarut ootem” which means I’ll eat your liver. It’s about the nicest thing someone can say.

  9. oscar348 -  June 17, 2013 - 7:21 am

    Just a little tidbit on the subject, in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the years following he first World War, right up to the 1950s the word Emden was widely used to signify an ‘A’ class person, somebody who was very clever or able or an expert and strong. There was a German light cruiser in the First War called ‘EMDEN’ which was an expert at eluding the enemy and wreaking havoc on allied shipping in the Indian Ocean. She captured and sank 17 ships, 15 of them British till she was brought to ground by a superior battle ship. The word ‘Emden’ was mentioned with a certain pride by the inhabitants of the sub-continent who were still under colonial rule. It would be difficult to translate that word in its whole cultural context to an audience who are not aware of the whole story.

  10. Carol -  June 17, 2013 - 3:10 am

    The word “nerd” doesn’t translate in Hangul (Korean.) At least that’s what my students told me.

  11. Neil McGowan -  June 16, 2013 - 8:03 am

    True, but while ‘beatniks’ risked – at most – parental disapproval and a few tuts from older people, the stilyagi risked being sent to an internment camp for aping the fashions of the USA – and quite a few were. Although “Teddy Boy” and “beatnik” get the clothing-style roughly right, they don’t necessarily encompass the level of social rebellion, and its possible consequences.

    This week I was asked to translate a Russian cuisine article, which named a series of Russian soups – without attempting to describe them at all! What to do – add parenthetical soup descriptions? For eight soups in a list? As I told my editor, ‘it’s like describing the colour red to a blind person” :(

  12. Clifton Palmer McLendon -  June 15, 2013 - 9:52 pm

    I wonder if the German noun “Gemütlichkeit” is an example of a culture-bound term, or one that is just difficult to translate …

  13. Saphy -  June 13, 2013 - 5:30 pm

    I am amused that the article uses the word “lieu”, meaning “place” in French. Well played!

  14. Yup -  June 13, 2013 - 10:39 am

    What about Zoot Suiters?

  15. Stephen Vaughan -  June 13, 2013 - 6:51 am

    Bob, I’m not sure that your example of “ignorer” is pertinent to this discussion. You are giving us a perfect example of how a language branches into “hence” meanings as they part from the original sense from their Greek, Latin, French, German, etc.origins. “Anxious”, “terrific” and many more are words that you are describing. I suggest that we not hunt for translations but that we use the original word. To fully understand what we are saying in using a new word we definitely must familiarize ourselves with the original culture that created the word. That’s why were use “gourmet”, “dilettante” and other such words on a daily basis for we don’t have a word that’s parallel to the original. As we add these words to our language it only enriches itself. We can certainly thank the Elizabethans for admiring and adopting Latin-based French words or else “education” would not be as “edifying” as it can be.

  16. Moira -  June 13, 2013 - 12:38 am

    The Filipino word “kilig” has no direct translation. It means “a feeling of romantic excitement”.

  17. Calzinho -  June 12, 2013 - 8:13 pm

    “Saudade” in Brazilian Portuguese. Can be loosely translated as a “longing” or “to have missed someone” but I haven’t found an exact translation, if one even exists..as this is a culture-bound term.


  18. Bill N -  June 12, 2013 - 6:11 pm

    The interjection “like” has to be eliminated. If any thing can make a person sound mentally challenged is to say ‘like’ in every sentence.
    Also; how do you explain to a non native English speaker why the phrase, “I ain’t got no money.” means what it means?

  19. Mike -  June 12, 2013 - 1:30 pm

    Could you please share a link to Donna Farina’s paper?

  20. greenjay -  June 12, 2013 - 10:35 am

    Hi Bob,

    Although there is not a stand-alone verb equivalent to ignorer, your own definition ‘to be unaware of’ as in ‘I’m unaware of’ is not an unduly lengthy or essentially different substitute for ‘j’ignore’. But most importantly, it’s not a germane comment on the article as it’s not an example of a culture-bound word, but rather a question of translation, and is a very common occurrence when translating between any two languages.

  21. shilpa -  June 11, 2013 - 1:33 pm

    Its really a great article. helped me a lot

  22. Bob -  June 11, 2013 - 12:12 pm

    The French “ignorer” means to not be aware of. There is no English equivalent of this simple verb, although English has “ignorance” which is definitely connected to the French.

  23. Ivens -  June 11, 2013 - 11:46 am

    The greek word ‘polis’ was the firs thing that came to my mind when I started reading this post. We often translate it to ‘city’, ‘city-state’, ‘state’ etc but a ‘polis’ is not exactly any of these. Of course it’s used only in a closed context – to refer to the greek ‘poleis’ which didn’t organize in anything that resembles our modern cities – but anyways it is still an unstranslated culture-bound term.

  24. Cathy H. -  June 11, 2013 - 10:19 am

    How about skinheads, punks, goths, yippies or any of those sub/ counter culture descriptors?

  25. sean mitch -  June 10, 2013 - 6:03 am

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the word ‘beatniks’. It seems to encapsulate fairly well your description of ‘stilyagi’ – just in the Soviet Union, which is a further description in itself. Beatnik even has the apparently Russian ending – ‘nik’. Although I like the idea of using the Russian word, I don’t think it is as difficult to translate as you think – ‘beatniks in the Soviet Union/period’ seems to give a pretty good idea

  26. akshay pariani -  June 7, 2013 - 10:40 pm

    really well put forward ty for good read

  27. Paul B -  June 7, 2013 - 4:14 pm

    Pet Rocks & Mood Rings. Weren’t the 70′s great!

  28. Teto -  June 7, 2013 - 3:09 pm


  29. Eric -  June 7, 2013 - 5:53 am

    The difference between culture-bound and slang may be subtle……..or even non-existent?

  30. fabgirl -  June 6, 2013 - 3:16 pm

    oh thats what bcbg stands 4

  31. julie beebe -  June 6, 2013 - 11:47 am

    Bon Chic, Bon Genre seems to be specific to a certain frenchness but I can not quite figure out what exactly-otherwise referred to as BCBG


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