I’ve always been fascinated by words, but more than that, by their sounds and their meanings. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a word journal, inside of which I write words—those I’ve just learned, and those that, for some reason, I just like.
Over the years, I’ve amassed a stack of these journals. On the last page of each one is a list of my favourite words. Interestingly, the list has pretty much remained the same: defenestration—the act of throwing a thing or person out of a window; ennui—a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement; halcyon—a time in the past that was idyllic, happy or peaceful; cynosure—a person or thing that is the centre of attention or admiration; tintinnabulation—the ringing or sound of bells. These are just a few.
There are also some non-English words that have found their way onto those lists, such as joie de vivre, French for “joy of life”; duende, Spanish for “spirit, soul, the expression of self or authenticity”; and, my all-time favourite word, schadenfreude, German for “that distinct feeling of glee one derives from the misfortune of another.”
The first time I heard this word, I was in my twenties, having lunch with a group of girlfriends. We were seated at an outdoor café. At the table next to us was, Patricia, a woman we all knew and felt “some way” about. She was pretty, damn near perfect, always poised and polished. Nothing on her was ever out of place. Had she not been so smug and self-important, with her designer high heels and teardrop diamond earrings, we probably would have liked her; but she seemed to delight in making others feel small, so we didn’t.
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That day as Patricia sat there straight-spined while watching her equally perfect boyfriend walk toward her, a huge bird flew overhead and relieved itself. My friends and I pretended not to see the white glob of excrement splat on her forehead and slide down the bridge of her nose.
“Ah,” one of my friends said with a smile, “such delicious schadenfreude.” She raised her glass as if making a toast and then took a nice long sip. When I found out what schadenfreude meant, I couldn’t believe there was actually a word to describe so exactly the tingle of covert delight that sometimes resulted from someone’s comeuppance. From that moment on it became a permanent part of my personal lexicon.
I’ve always been aware of the fact that a person’s active vocabulary, the words an individual uses often, can tell a lot about that person. Obvious though it may be, I’d never considered that the words that exist or don’t exist in a language also reveal a great deal about the culture of its native speakers. For example, in most Ghanaian languages there is no word for “cousin,” because it’s not a concept that exists in our definition of family. Those ties are sheltered under the umbrella of the words sister and brother.
A couple of years ago, my daughter, who shares my affinity for language, told me about a book titled, The Meaning of Tingo: And Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World. While reading this book, I encountered words and phrases from other languages that ranged from the beautiful to the bizarre, words and phrases that left me wondering about the lifestyles and social priorities in some of those places.
Needless to say, I’ve now started compiling a list of my new favourite words culled from a variety of foreign languages, a list I’d like to share with you in hopes that it will fill you with as much laughter, curiosity and wide-eyed speechlessness as it does me. Okay, here goes:
•Backpfeifengesicht (German): a face that cries out for a fist in it.
•Zechpreller (German): someone who leaves without paying the bill at a restaurant.
•Gusa (Japanese): to decapitate with a sword.
•Rejam (Malay): to thrust down and suffocate under water or mud.
•Pisan zapra (Malay): the time needed to eat a banana.
•Koro (Japanese): the hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking into one’s body.
•Bakku-shan (Japanese): girl who looks pretty when seen from behind but not from the front.
•Baotou shucuon (Chinese): to cover one’s head with both hands and run away like a coward.
•Mahj (Persian): looking beautiful after a disease.
•Bawusni (Persian): a wife whose husband does not love her and seldom visits.
•Farik (Persian): a woman who hates her husband.
•Abtar (Persian): one who has no offspring, a loser (the literal meaning of the word is “a bucket without a handle”).
•Uitwaaien (Dutch): to walk in windy weather for fun.
•Zalatwic (Polish): the use of friends, bribes, personal charm or connections to get something done.
•Ilunga (Bantu): a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.
•Mokita (New Guinean): the truth everyone knows but nobody says.
•Neko-neko (Indonesian): one who has a creative ideas which are damaging or get in the way of normal life.
The one word that really caused me to raise an eyebrow is areodjarekput, Inuit for “exchanging wives but only for a few days.” Ummm….I guess there is a whole lot of scandalous stuff happening in those igloos of which we have no idea.
Last, but not least, the meaning of tingo: Indonesian for “borrowing things from a friend’s house, one by one, until there is nothing left.” And, if truth be told, I think we all know a person or two who, if given the opportunity, would be an expert in the practice of tingo, don’t we?