The words of a living language are like creatures: they are alive. Each word has a physical character, a look and a personality, an ancestry, an expectation of life and death, a hope of posterity.
-Morris Bishop, “Good Usage, Bad Usage, and Usage”
I discovered a wonderful book, “They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases,” a few years back. In it, the author, Howard Rheingold, talks about the theory of “linguistic relativity,” which at its most bare bones says that the respective languages of cultures shape the way each people views the world.
“The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances.”
And because each does this differently, we’re presented with culture-centric words/concepts that don’t translate easily. Some of these terms have gained entry into our vocabulary – Zeitgeist, tao and mantra, for example. For the betterment of our shrinking world, and to have a little fun, I think we should try to add a few more:
ho’oponopono (HO-OH-poh-no-poh-no) [Hawaiian], n., a social gathering and healing process that combines the functions of a religious ceremony, group therapy, family counseling session, town hall meeting, and small claims court. Note: Under this concept, EVERYBODY agrees to stay in the same room until some resolution is reached. This is how we should run Congress.
uffda (OOF-DAH) [Swedish], excl., a sympathetic exclamation when someone else experiences pain, a combination of “Ouch for you” and “Oh, I’m sorry you hurt yourself.”
suilk (SWILLK) [Scottish], v., to swallow, gulp, suck with a slobbering noise. To the Scottish people, the act of swallowing food with an abnormal amount of noise is considered rude enough to merit a verb of its own. Note: If I didn’t already have the family background to prove I’m part Scottish, this would do it.
fisselig (rhymes with thistle fish) [German], adj., conveys a temporary state of being flustered to the point of incompetence as the direct result of another person’s nagging. Note: If said overbearing nagger asks what’s wrong, reply “I’m fisseliged.” That could be odd enough scare him or her away.
tartle [Scottish], v., to hesitate in recognizing a person or thing but recover quickly enough, remember the name and avoid terminal embarrassment.
sanza (SON-zah, rhymes with Honda) [Zande, New Guinea], n., a circumlocutory form of speech that employs words and gestures to create hidden malicious meanings to apparently polite, innocuous speech. Note: I would swear on a stack of Bibles that I know no one who’s from New Guinea, but I definitely know some women who have perfected this speaking ability.
attaccabottoni (rhymes with a lot of baloney) [Italian], n., a doleful bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless tales. Note: Attaccabottoni is my last entry here lest I become one.