Toastmasters: What a Wonderful Word

Note: This speech is based on a blog post I wrote. You can also see a recording of the speech here. (1)In the speech I changed the way that I presented the list of words. I got the idea from the show Sports Night when they listed the names of the staff.

I remember the first time I learned about a concept that didn’t have a name in English. It was the first year of business school and I was working on an economics problem set. My friend Yugin had just arrived from Korea and she was correcting an answer on her economics homework.

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

I was confused, thought about it for a while, then 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 it in English.”

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

Names are magical things. In the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” And it’s true. It’s the difference between “That guy sitting over there” vs. “That’s my friend Rob Schlaff sitting over there.”

So I started looking for other words and concepts that don’t exist in English. I thought most of these words would describe things that I wouldn’t need, like Finnish has the word poronkusema (porr-ON-ku-se-ma) which is the distance a reindeer can walk without needing a rest. Or murr-ma (mer-mah), an indigenous Australian word that means “to walk through the water, searching for something with only your feet.” But as it turns out, there’s relatively few of these words.

Some languages have certain words based on their cultures or environment that are quite useful in English. In Iceland, they have the word gluggavedur (GLU-ka-ve-duh) which describes weather that looks beautiful while you’re inside, but is brutally cold when you step outside. Italians have the word abbiocco (ah-bee-OH-ko), drowsiness from eating a big meal, which I could certainly use after a big meal at my favorite Italian restaurant.

But surprisingly, most untranslatable words are common feelings across cultures. Even that story that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow is made up. There are a lot of words in other languages that provide names for things I’ve experienced but didn’t have a name for before. Discovering their names gives them substance and makes them more real. Tjhere are some great words about community, like the Belarusian word talaka (ta-la-ka), the act of helping someone out with a household task, and getting paid with a good meal shared at the end of the day. Or nakama (na-ka-MA) the Japanese word for friends who are like family.

Then there are the words that just make me smile like mencolek (men-CHO-leck) the Indonesian word for the act of tapping someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them. And cafuné (ca-FOO-neh), the Brazillian word for running your fingers through someone’s hair

But my favorite is the Russian word pochemuchka (potch-MOOCH-ka), the child who asks too many questions. That was me growing up. I wish other people knew it growing up. Then I would have been “Rob the pochemuchka” instead of “Rob, the kid who asked too many questions.” It’s a small victories but an important one.

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, and there’s even the Roman Saturnalia. 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.”

These days we’re seeing the cultural divide in our own country more strongly than ever. So the next time you see someone doing or saying something that you don’t understand, take a step back and find out what you have in common. Then take a step forward and learn from your differences. And together we can make the world a better place one word or conversation at a time.

Two great books on this topic are What a Wonderful Word and Lost in Translation (Maria Popova’s review).

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. In the speech I changed the way that I presented the list of words. I got the idea from the show Sports Night when they listed the names of the staff.