Ask Language Log: Word(s) for leaking?

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From Bob Ladd:

Thanks to an old pair of swimming goggles, I’ve just become aware that Italian doesn’t have a word for ‘leak’ – or alternatively, that the English word ‘leak’ covers a very wide range of situations in which a substance (often water) passes through a human artefact designed to prevent it from passing through.  Semantically, there are two distinct cases: in one the artefact is a container of some sort (a bucket, a gas tank) intended to keep the substance enclosed, while in the other the artefact is designed to keep the substance out (boats, roofs, dikes, goggles). Grammatically, there are additional differences: the subject of the verb describing the leaking can either be the artefact (the boat leaks) or the substance (the water leaked in), and if it’s the artefact the verb can either be intransitive (the roof leaks) or transitive (the roof lets water in).  In Italian, the artefact can sometimes be the subject in the case where a container loses some of its contents, but it normally wants to be transitive (il serbatoio perde (acqua), lit. ‘the tank loses (water)’).  It’s hard to literally translate ‘the roof leaks’ or ‘the boat leaks’ and get an acceptable sentence; it’s more natural to say something like la barca prende acqua, lit. ‘the boat takes water’, or entra l’acqua, lit. ‘enters the water’ (verb-subject) or c’è una falla ‘there is a leak/breach’. English happily uses the verb ’leak’ in all these cases, with the artefact normally the grammatical subject of an intransitive verb.

How does it work in other languages?



  1. Tom davidson said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 6:39 am

    Some examples in Chinese 輪胎漏氣 the tire leaks air. 車子漏油 the car leaks oil/gasoline. 屋頂漏水 the roof leaks

  2. FM said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 7:41 am

    Russian has a word протекать which can just mean "flow through" (as in "a river flows through it") but also takes on most of the meanings of the English word, although it doesn't admit the metaphorical extension to information (AFAIK.)

  3. Leone Koehne said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    In portuguese we have the word "vazar", meaning "to leak". It can be used almost the same way that "to leak" in english. "O copo está vazando" (the cup is leaking), "a informação vazou nos jornais" (the information leaked on the newspaper). "Está vazando óleo do motor" (it's leaking oil from the engine). It's almost the same…

  4. ~flow said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 8:20 am

    As I once learned it, you can also say, in Mandarin, e.g. 浴缸有漏水出來了, lit. "(the) bath tub has leak-water coming out", i.e. the verb-object construction becomes, formally at least, nominalized; the alternative would be 浴缸有水漏出來了, lit. "(the) bath tub has water leaking out of". Not sure about boats.

    In German you'd say 'die Wanne leckt' ("the tub is leaking"), and, if need be, you can add the leaking substance as direct object, as in 'das Auto leckt Öl' ("the car is leaking oil"); however, I'd say that 'das Auto hat ein Ölleck' ("the car has an oil-leak") is a more common way to put it. Now, the leaking substance can also appear as the *subject* of the same verb, as in 'da leckt Wasser aus der Wanne' ("there's water leaking from the tub"). As for boats, 'das Boot leckt' and 'das Boot hat ein Leck' are commonly used. Actually, when you think of a sports motor boat, these phrases do not make it entirely clear whether the boat is spilling oil or gasoline (losing matter), or letting water in (accruing matter), although most people would probably opt for 'der Motor verliert Öl' ("the motor is loosing oil") and maybe 'das Boot is undicht' or 'das Boot lässt Wasser rein' ("the boat is not (water)tight", "the boat is letting water in") to remove the ambiguity.

    The noun is 'das Leck', also, 'die Leckage', the latter being more abstract, more procedural, and maybe less constricted to a single point of failure.

  5. Keith said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 8:22 am

    French, unsurprisingly, works much the same as Italian.

    But I think that even in English, I'd often use "lets in water" rather than "leaks" for most things resembling clothing, and reserve "leaks" for a roof or goggles for the "artefact is designed to keep the substance out", as Bob Ladd terms it.

    Mes chaussures prennent l'eau = My shoes let in water
    Mon manteau laisse entrer l'eau = My coat lets in water

    French has a verb "fuir", that can be used intransitively to mean "to leak", but also both intransitively and transitively to mean "to flee, to escape".

    Le robinet fuit = the tap leaks
    Les réfugiés fuient leurs pays en guerre = the refugees flee their war-torn country

    Then there's a reflexive verb "s'enfuir" with the similar meaning of "to fly away".

    Quand je demande à mes enfants de m'aider, ils s'enfuient = When I ask my children for help, they disappear.

    In the sense of a leak of information, there is the expression "une fuite d'informations" (French usually wants the nouns to be in the plural), and a more recently coined verb "fuiter".

    Le nom du nouveau ministre a fuité = the name of the new Minister was leaked

  6. languagehat said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 8:50 am

    The basic Russian verb is течь 'flow'; you can see the sense connection in, e.g., У меня из носу течет 'My nose is running' (for which we could equally well say "leaking" if that was the way English rolled). Russian being Russian, of course you can specify with prefixes; утечь/утекать is 'to leak, escape' (of a liquid or gas), and the noun утечка is 'a leak; leakage.' There is also FM's протечь/протекать, which has a 'through' tinge.

  7. Joke Kalisvaart said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 10:25 am

    Dutch has the verb 'lekken' that is mainly used for roofs, plumbing, or, figuratively, information.
    It's also possible to use this verb to say that the water leaks in, but that's less common. I'd rather say that the water streams or 'walks' (runs) in.
    When a container, boat or tire is no longer water or air tight, we usually use the adjective 'lek'
    De emmer is lek (the bucket is leaky).

  8. Rodger C said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 10:32 am

    French has a verb "fuir", that can be used intransitively to mean "to leak", but also both intransitively and transitively to mean "to flee, to escape".

    I suddenly think: "Leak, down there leak! I think that some birds are drunk!"

  9. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 11:20 am

    Russian also has просачиваться/просочиться "to leak through, ooze or seep out, seep through." Turkish has sızmak "to leak, seep through" – the causative sızdırmak has the interesting slang meaning "to cause someone to pass out from too much liquor"

  10. David Marjanović said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 12:06 pm

    In German you'd say 'die Wanne leckt' ("the tub is leaking")

    I wouldn't, because lecken belongs to seafaring jargon (i.e. Low German) and is therefore not in my active vocabulary. I'd go for ist undicht, ist nicht dicht ("isn't [water]tight") or hat ein Loch ("has a hole").

  11. Francisco Almeida said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

    In one of many subtle differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese, the former usually employs the word "fuga" for a leak while "vazamento" is reserved for flows or overflows in general. An information leak is thus "fuga de informação" in Portugal and "vazamento de informação" on the other side of the Atlantic.
    The corresponding verbs are "fugir" (to escape) and "vazar" (to empty). While vazar can be used intransitively and applied to both container and contained ("o vaso vaza", "a água vaza"), fugir is constrained by its other connotations and can only be applied to the fluid ("a água foge") or in the participle ("o vaso tem uma fuga").

  12. Tommi Nieminen said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

    Finnish "vuotaa" works the same way as "to leak", but it's broader: the phrase for bleeding in Finnish means "to leak blood", and you can also leak water out of your eyes if they are dry or irritated etc. You can also say that a container/barrier lets something through, but that's less frequent than using "vuotaa".

  13. Ellen K. said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

    Mes chaussures prennent l'eau = My shoes let in water
    Mon manteau laisse entrer l'eau = My coat lets in water

    That (the English, at least) doesn't convey the concept of leaking, that is, letting water in when it's supposed to keep water out, unless "shoes" or "coat" is replaced by something more specific, like rubber boots or raincoat.

  14. David Nash said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 3:41 pm

    'Leak' and verbs with similar diatheses are covered in §1.1.3 'Substance/Source Alternation' pp.32-3 and §43.4 'Verbs of Substance Emission' pp.237-8 of Beth Levin's English verb classes and alternations (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Levin observes "Like other verbs of emission, these verbs take the emitter/source as subject; but unlike other verbs of emission, they may optionally express the substance emitted as direct object.": so, along with 'Water leaks through the roof' and 'The roof leaks', there is the third possibility 'The roof leaks water.'

  15. Chips Mackinolty said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 5:55 pm

    Inevitably, Australian (male) English has another version as we "go for a leak" or "take a leak" and other variants. That is, we urinate. Australian women (I just did a quick unscientific survey), understand the term, but don't use that terminology of themselves (they go for a wee or a piss). I have no idea if other variants of English use the term, let alone Dutch or German, or indeed other languages.

  16. Krogerfoot said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 8:37 pm

    Japanese 漏れる moreru means "leak" in a broad range of senses, including revealing information or secrets and overlooking mistakes. The subject is the thing or substance getting into or out of whatever isn't supposed to do that, so to translate "the pipe is leaking" you'd need to specify what substance is escaping, e.g. パイプから水が漏れている paipu kara mizu ga morete iru "From the pipe, water is leaking."

    A transitive variant 漏らす morasu seems most commonly used metaphorically for revealing secrets or letting an error get by, but it also means "to wet oneself."

  17. Michael Watts said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 3:04 am

    "Take a leak" would be understood by Americans; I have no opinion on whether we use it. I don't personally use it.

  18. Philip Spaelti said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 4:50 am

    Swiss German will use "laa" with "ine/use/dure" (so, 'let in/out/through'), but there is also a word "rünne" which means 'leak' and can be used for noses as well. Both the container and the fluid can "rünne".
    And then there is also a prefix verb "verhebe" ('for-hold') which can be used to describe water/fluid-tightness, including of the bladder (i.e., not peeing). This verb is actually more general and describes structural soundness in general.

    This makes me think that there is another dimension here since 'leaking' might be subject to active control or not.

  19. ajay said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 4:58 am

    And there's also the distinction between "leaky" and "leaking", which not all languages have. My roof is leaky all the time, until I fix it. But it's only leaking when there is actually rain falling on it and coming through the holes.

  20. loonquawl said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 8:46 am

    In addition to ~flow's comments on German usage, i'd add that for information there is a fluid-like usage: Informationen sind durchgesickert – with the verb sickern meaning to drain, to seep through, to soak, and the whole sentence meaning 'informations leaked'. The person giving away information would be 'die undichte Stelle' – 'undicht' meaning 'non-leakproof'.

  21. Yuval said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 9:26 am

    Hebrew follows English: דולף /dolef/ can be intransitive for the substance, intransitive for the artefact, or transitive artefact-substance.

  22. Bob Ladd said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    Thanks to everyone for all these illustrations. I still haven't been able to work out whether it's English or Italian that is more typical, but it's clear that the semantics of leaking don't readily map onto typical subject and object roles. Thanks to David Nash for the reference to Beth Levin, too.

  23. Thaomas said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 10:04 am

    I suspect Spanish is much like Italian.

    The "leak out" would be "tener escape" [El tanque tiene escape!] or "escaparse" [El gas se escapó del cilindro.] In politics the word is "filtrarse."

    "Leak in" would be "dejar entrar/filltrar" o "entrarse/filtrarse" [El sello de la chimenea dejó filtrar el agua.] [La lluvia se entró por la chiminea.]

  24. David Marjanović said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 1:41 pm

    I've repeatedly encountered "take a leak" on teh intarwebz, devoid of geographic information.

  25. languagehat said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

    To me (an American), "take a leak" is perfectly standard collquial American. I'd be surprised if it were geographically restricted.

  26. Paul Kay said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 5:46 pm

    Not terribly relevant, but the restriction to artifacts is too narrow. Easy to find natural objects described as leaking, and not only those that are being used as tools. Google search provides these examples among many:

    I plucked a fig the size of my thumb. The stem leaked white. I tasted the tender ripeness…

    Returning to work here I noticed that both plants had grown considerably larger and so I attempted to prune them. The cactus leaked a heavy milky substance as I worked and the thorns of the bougainvillea were jabbing me at every opportunity.

    Figure 2. Leakage of free amino acids from R. obtusifolius leaves.

    Careful as she was, the juicy melon leaked all over her chin. She was mortified. 

  27. Paul Kay said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 6:21 pm

    Maybe the semantic generalization about leak(ing) is that the passage of the non-solid substance through the membrane is from some point of view — possibly, but not necessarily, the speaker's — undesired.

  28. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 2:32 am

    Swedish has the verb [i]läcka[/i], used in similar ways to English. It feels slightly odd to me to use it about a boat, tho – I'd rather say båten tar in vatten "the boat takes in water" or the like. I'd happily use it with a roof, a shoe, a battery, or (wrt information) an organization.

    (I'd happily use it about a part of a boat's hull, so the distinction isn't nautical as such.)

  29. Steve Bacher said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 7:57 pm

    In the analogy-rich world of computation, there is the term "memory leak", which describes what happens when poorly written software eventually causes the computer to run out of RAM. That seems backward to me, as it's not memory "leaking" out of the applications, but "leaking" into the applications and out of the containing operating system — which itself appears to violate some topological conceit. Especially since leakage, if attributed to a fault of the leaking agent, normally causes the leaked substance to flow out of the guilty party, not into it.

  30. Richard Daniels said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 10:41 am

    Another common construction in German involves "tropfen" (to drip).

    In combination with "aus" (from), you can capture the meanings of something leaking out of a receptacle when it shouldn't.

    For example, "Da tropft Wasser/Öl aus dem Schlauch/dem Motorbereich": lit. "Water/oil is dripping from the hose/the motor" = "The hose/the motor is leaking water/oil"

    When liquid is leaking into a space where you don't want it, the choice of prepositions is more varied. I've seen "in" (into) "von" (from) and "durch" (through), as follows:

    "Es tropft Wasser in den Kofferraum" : lit. "Water is dripping into the trunk of the car": "The trunk's leaking"
    "Da tropft Wasser von der Decke": lit. "Water is dripping from the ceiling": "There's a leak in the ceiling"
    Alternatively, "Es tropft Wasser durch die Decke": lit. "Water is dripping through the ceiling": "Water's coming through the ceiling"

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