Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Word

Last week I wrote about synaesthesia, a confusion of the senses that leads people to see and describe the world in strange and interesting ways, ascribing texture to color, scents to sounds and so on. A number of great poets and novelists have had this condition, drawing attention to both the beauty and the limits of language for expressing ourselves. Language carries culture, identity, ideology, dreams, emotions, entire worlds. And some languages have a knack for capturing concepts that elude all others, as if there is one, and one word only in all of existence that can define a particular idea, sensation or experience. Here’s an interesting article that pulls together a great selection from the global vocabulary. Words like this make the world a richer place, perhaps worth dropping into your next water cooler conversation:

Yagan (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) – The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.

Scottish – The act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.

Brazilian Portuguese – The act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.

Indonesian – A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.

Arabic – Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them.


Richard Cross said...

There's an excellent potboiler of a book by Howard Rheingold called ‘They have a word for it.’ In it he covers the globe to discover how words can open up ways of understanding and experiencing life. Here's some examples to throw in at the appropriate time in conversation.

Piston - a friend in a high place- a combination of Gallic reasoning and elegance as in se faire pistoner to make a friend in a high place..
Papierkrieg- German for complicated paperwork connected with making a complaint.
Drachenfutter- German for Dragon fodder; peace offerings for wives from guilty husbands
Talanoa- In Hindi there's talk as a social adhesive. Speech as social glue. Just talking - a form of water-cooler conversation
Esprit d’l’escalier (French) and Treppenwitz ( German)- word that comes to mind when it’s too late to utter it
Orenda – the power of voiced, focused will (the opposite of Kismet) which literally means song. They are conjuring up the kind of power that mortals can summon to combat the blind forces of fate. So the next time someone says whatever ‘will be will be’ you’can lay down your orenda on it
Attacabottoni- (rhymes with baloney) we’ve all met these, Italian for a doleful bore who buttonsholes people and tells sad, pointless tales. So at a party you can tell people to watch out for the ‘attacabottoni’ (rhymes with baloney)
Saper - vivere- (Italian) and because you have saper vivere you’ll be able to handle people diplomatically
Ta - (Chinese) to understand things and thus take them lightly. A person who takes things too seriously is putah (not ta) It’s one of the Chinese words difficult to render into English. One can ta office politics, the ways of the world . Takuan means to have seen through life . An understanding the world works in a strange and sometimes unfair way that can’t be understood.

Then there’s the piece de resistance one to try at the next management meeting or presentation.
Haragei- (the r is pronounced like a d)Japanese for visceral , indirect non-verbal communication. Words can be mistrusted, nuances, gestures, facial expressions and silences are equally important. Rugby legend Willie John Mcbride could be an exponent of Haragei. Nigel Starmer-Smith spotted this non-verbal ability in commentating on a Lions match against Transvaal when he highlighted the use of his ‘Ballymena glare’ on a recalcitrant opposing player. Then in the build up to the first Lions test when there were none of the usual euphemisms or mantras. England's Fran Cotton, prop for all four Tests, recalls: ‘we came down to the captain's room. It was half full and nobody was saying a word, not a word. It was probably another five minutes before everyone arrived, the team, the subs and Syd Millar and still nobody's saying a word. Willie John arrives, nobody says a word. And then over 20 minutes passed - 20 minutes! It was the most unreal thing I've ever been through. Roger Uttley still can see ‘McBride pipe in mouth, the team sat in semi-circle, nodding as people came in. He just looked around occasionally looking in people’s eyes. But the tension that he had built up was fantastic.’ Then he stood up and said: ‘Right Lad’s I think the atmosphere’s great. Then, we're ready, and we got on the coach….. only Willie could do that.’ Rarely at a loss for a word McBride explains his approach, ‘I am looking around I see all these guys. I’m thinking I have said a lot to this point. And I am sitting in this room with some of the greatest players the world has ever seen. I really have nothing more to say. I remember after a couple of minutes of this silence they’re all turning on to the game. Everybody said but he hasn’t said anything.’ McGeechan one of the smallest members of the team felt ‘you looked round and had absolute faith in everyone around you.‘

Nathan Westgate said...

Here’s two words to save the planet: Secretly Famous – to act in a sustainable (True Blue!) way. You heard it here first... what are you Secretly Famous for?

Kempton said...

Thanks for sharing these beautiful words. Let me share one here.

saat3 giu1 (撒嬌)
Chinese - a young or really young girl's act of wheedling (with any of "wheedle"'s negative connotations).

For those that read Chinese, in the following blog entry, I quoted professor Lau's article explaining his interesting but unsuccessful attempt to translate the concept of "saat3 giu1" (撒嬌) to English.

Kempton said...

Sorry, I made a serious typo in the definition, it should be "WITHOUT".

Here is correct definition.
saat3 giu1 (撒嬌)
Chinese - a young or really young girl's act of wheedling (without any of "wheedle"'s negative connotations).