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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 allegedly refers to "A look that without words is shared by two people who want to initiate something, but neither start" or "looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do."[1]

A romantic interpretation of the meaning also exists: "It is 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] It is also cited in books and articles on game theory associated with the volunteer's dilemma.[3][4]

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.[5] It is also referenced in the documentary film Life in a Day (2011), in response to the question "what do you love?".[6]


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.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Mamihlapinatapai was the title of an exhibition and self-published exhibition catalogue by Max Pinckers and Michiel Burger in Amsterdam's Flemish Cultural Centre, De Brakke Grond, in 2012.[7]
  • "Mamihlapinatapei" is a song by Ronny Cox from his 2004 album Ronny Cox Live.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Peter Matthews, Norris McWhirter. The Guinness Book of Records 1994. p. 392. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
  2. ^ "Drachenfutter, Saudade, Onsay".
  3. ^ Kollock, Peter (1998). "Social Dilemmas: the anatomy of cooperation". Annu. Rev. Sociol. 24. pp. 183–214. JSTOR 223479.
  4. ^ Fisher, Len. Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life. p. 76.
  5. ^ Hitchings, H. (2005). Defining the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. p. 92. ISBN 0-374-11302-5.
  6. ^ Mamihlapinatapai- Life in a day, retrieved 2015-10-09
  7. ^ "Max Pinckers en Michiel Burger: Mamihlapinatapai" (in Dutch and English). De Brakke Grond. Archived from the original on November 26, 2012. Retrieved November 24, 2014.
  8. ^ "Ronny Cox Live | Ronny Cox". Retrieved 12 July 2020.