Note: You can watch the speech I gave based on this material here.
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 1: I found this book from my favorite gift guide. I also found two other books on the topic: the beautiful book Lost in Translation (Maria Popova’s review) and Other Wordly. Lost in Translation has some wonderful illustrations like the below.
Note 2: The intonation of languages makes things interesting as well. Take a look at the Dana Carvey show which did a wonderful bit on Germans who say nice things.
Note 3: I just came across two interesting pieces on words. First is Lulu Miller’s book, Why Fish Don’t Exist, which tells how the group of things called fish aren’t really a class at all.(1)My book report on Why Fish Don’t Exist is all about the importance of variation and not trying to create a perfect world The second is Jill Lepore’s article on what to call the events of January 6th.