What a Wonderful Word

From the book Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders

I remember the first time it happened to me. It was the first year of business school and we were working on an economics problem set. My friend Yugin had just arrived from Korea and she was correcting an answer for her economics homework.

She asked me “What’s the English word for after you erase something?”

I thought this was a philosophical question like, “What’s left of an image after you remove it?” Something like the way Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by William de Kooning to push the boundaries of art.

So I answered, “When you erase something there’s nothing left. You’ve erased it.”

“No, that’s not what I’m asking. Those little pink things that come off the eraser. What do you call that?”

“Hmmm … eraser shavings maybe. We don’t have a word for that in English.”

“Huh,” she said, “that’s odd. We have a word for that in Korean.”

It kind of blew my mind. I’d known this before but for some reason, it never sunk in. When things have a name it makes them more real. It gives them an identity. Dale Carnegie said that “A person’s name is the sweetest sound.” Mastercard shows the excitement and validation that trans people have when they have their real names (vs. their birth names) on their credit cards.

That’s why I love the young people’s book What a Wonderful Word. This short collection of 24 untranslatable words from around the world is beautifully illustrated and highlights the wonderful and surprising differences in cultures around the world.

I don’t even think of words that are unique to English like “whimsey” and “gobbledygook.” I’m also used to hearing some common words from the Jewish Dialect of Yiddish like “shlimazl,” a person who suffers from relentless bad luck.

I thought that most untranslatable words would describe things that I hadn’t experienced and couldn’t use, like:

  • Poronkusema (Finnish, pronounced porr-ON-ku-se-ma). The distance a reindeer can walk before needing to use the toilet. Normally less than 5 miles.
  • Murr-Ma (Wagiman, an indigenous Australian language, pronounced mer-mah). To walk through the water, searching for something with only your feet.

Some languages have certain words based on their cultures or environments that are relevant more broadly. The Icelandic may be indoors more often than New Yorkers due to the brutal cold, but there are many Gluggavedur days in New York in the dead of winter that look inviting from the inside but are brutally cold.

  • Abbiocco (Italian, pronounced ah-bee-OH-ko). Drowsiness from eating a big meal.
  • Gluggavedur (Icelandic, pronounced GLU-ka-ve-duh). Weather that looks beautiful while you’re inside, but is much too cold when you step outside.

Surprisingly, there are a lot of words in other languages that provide names for things I experience but couldn’t name before. Naming them provides a clarity and instantiation that makes them more real.

  • Talaka (Belarusian, pronounced ta-la-ka). The act of helping someone in their house or field without expecting payment other than a good meal shared at the end of the day.
  • Nakama (Japanese, pronounced na-ka-MA). Friends who are like family.
  • Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese, pronounced ca-FOO-neh). The act of running your fingers through someone’s hair
  • Mencolek (Indonesian, pronounced men-CHO-leck). The act of tapping someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them.
  • Pelinti (Buli, a Ghanian language, pronounced peh-lin-tee). To move food that is too hot around your mouth as you wait for it to cool down.
  • Pochemuchka (Russian, pronounced potch-MOOCH-ka). A child who asks “why?” all the time; a person who asks too many questions.

This commonality of experience across the world reminds me of a talk I’d heard by a Rabbi who was also a medieval historian. He talked about how most religions have a holiday at the end of December. Jews have Hanukah, Christians have Christmas, etc. He told us that this wasn’t a coincidence. All of these religions are praying to their god to bring back the sun as it faded into the winter solstice. All of these groups were frightened that the sun wouldn’t come back.

I was surprised that a Rabbi would be talking like this. “Doesn’t it make you feel like our religion is less special if we’re just doing the same thing as everyone else?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “quite the opposite. It makes me feel part of a larger global community where we all have the same hopes and fears.”

Note: I found this book from my favorite gift guide.

How Much is That Really Worth? The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Valuation

Dearest Mother-in-Law,
Last year, when you and I went to the One World Observatory, we saw that famous tourist location—the penny crushing machine. We watched a tourist put her penny in the machine and then added in a dollar. The machine then crushed the penny into a medallion that she could take home as a souvenir. Your quite reasonable reaction was, “Why would you pay a dollar to have your own Penny crushed?”
The Penny I Crushed at 1 World Trade
The way you were looking at it was:
  1. Initial valuation: $1.01.
  2. You start with a penny and a dollar.
  3. Then you put a dollar in a machine that crushes the penny.
  4. You get back the crushed penny.
  5. Final valuation: $0.01.
  6. Result: You feel like you’ve wasted a dollar.

But I think the crushed penny is a pretty good value. To understand why, let’s understand the job that the crushed penny is doing. When most people think about products, they think about the product itself, i.e., I’ve taken a penny and gotten a crushed penny. But people don’t buy most products just to own them, they hire products to perform a job. The famous Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Clayton Christensen, of Harvard Business School, and Scott Cook, CEO of Intuit, introduce the concept in their article Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure. I’ve paraphrased some key parts below.

A hypothetical fast-food restaurant is looking to improve sales of its milkshakes. Researchers observed that in the afternoon parents often bought milkshakes, in addition to complete meals, for their children. What job were the parents trying to do? They were exhausted from repeatedly having to say “no” to their kids. They hired milkshakes as an innocuous way to placate their children and feel like loving parents. This was expected and a well known job that milkshakes perform.

However, one researcher was surprised to find that 40% of all milkshakes were purchased in the early morning by customers driving alone in their cars. He found that most bought it to do the job of making their drive to work more interesting and keep them satiated until noon. 

So the milkshake is doing two completely different jobs. With children, the milkshake is a competitor to a toy or candy. However, as an early morning snack, customers may buy a bagel, banana, or donut instead. The key point here is that the milkshake can be hired to do completely different jobs, meaning that it has a very different value depending on the context.

Getting back to my crushed penny. I want it to do the job of a souvenir, providing a physical memento of the trip that the kids can buy and keep. The alternatives are a t-shirt, a stuffed animal, or a postcard. It would be hard to find a souvenir for my boys for cheaper than that.

So I’ve talked to my kids and we agree that the crushed penny is a good souvenir. But how can we make it more valuable than another typical item they might get at the souvenir shop. That’s where the elongated coin album comes in.

The Penny Crusher Album
At the One World Observatory, you asked me why anyone would buy a case for these crushed pennies. “It’s even more useless than the crushed penny!” you insisted. But the album has a wonderful purpose. It lets my boys keep their crushed pennies in a safe place and makes sure they don’t lose them. It turns a crushed penny into a treasured collectible and makes the kids into official crushed penny collectors. Then, when they are deciding between whether they want the crushed penny or an expensive souvenir, we can have a discussion on what we’re likely to keep around longer and value more. The crushed penny and album should do well in that fight.
The Boys Penny Collection (So Far)
I agree with you that crushing a penny for $1 is not a worthwhile exercise. But creating a token souvenir at every tourist attraction we attend for $1 in lieu of something we’d just lose is a great deal! Buying an album is a drop in the bucket and makes each penny that much more valuable to the kids.