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. Aaron Sorkin used the real names of the Sports Night production staff and stuck it in as a Christmas gift to them.

I remember the first time I learned about a foreign word that didn’t have a name in English. It was my 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 the pink stuff that’s left after you you erase something?”

“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.”

So I started looking for other words 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. Even that story that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow is mostly fiction.

But culture and environment do influence language and helps create some useful words. Icelandic has 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 use abbiocco (ah-bee-OH-ko) to describe the drowsiness from eating a big meal, which I could certainly use after a big meal at my favorite Italian restaurant.

There are also words in other languages that describe things I’ve experienced but didn’t have a name for. Discovering their names gives them substance and makes them more real, like the word talaka (ta-la-ka), from Belarus, 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 because they make me realize that people halfway around the world are just like me. Like mencolek (men-CHO-leck), the Indonesian word for the act of tapping someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them. Or cafuné (ca-FOO-neh), the Brazillian word for running your fingers through someone’s hair.

But my favorite is pochemuchka (potch-MOOCH-ka), the Russian word for the child who asks too many questions. That was me growing up. I wish I had this word back then. Then I would have been “Rob the pochemuchka” instead of “Rob, the kid who asked too many questions.” They’d be saying the same thing but I would have felt more connected to the other pochemuchkas.

This global commonality 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. This isn’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.”

There’s a useful lesson here about bring people together. 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. Together we can make the world a better place one word 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. Aaron Sorkin used the real names of the Sports Night production staff and stuck it in as a Christmas gift to them.