Saturday, June 09, 2007

In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World by Christopher J Moore

# Hardcover: 128 pages

# Publisher: Oxford University Press (March 17, 2005)

#Genre: Language Arts and Etymology

#Listen to the author on NPR

I think it would be fair to surmise that we have all loved someone romantically and then lost them. If we are honest with ourselves, even today we think back to that certain someone and although we don't feel the same way about them anymore, we are still able to conjure up that melancholic, bittersweet feeling when we think of them and the love that was shared. Now wouldn't it be great if we knew of one brilliant, succinct word to describe and capture that feeling we get when we think about the person we once loved and then lost? In English it's a hopeless task, what word can we possibly use that would effective describe that particular love? But the Russians have a word it and it's called razbliuto.

Then, how many times has it happened that some makes a witty remark in your presence and you're unable to come up with an equally witty rejoinder, but the minute you leave the room and you're walking down the stairs, you think of a smart retort, but too late! Again, is there any word in English that can quite describe this phenomenon? I think not, but the French have a word for it, it's called "espirit de l'escalier" an idiom which literally means a witty remark that occurs to you too late!

Razbliuto and Espirit de l'escalier are just two of many, many words that Christopher J. Moore (linguist) has collected from languages around the world for which there is no equivalent in the English language. He also sets out to translate expressions, words and phrases from different parts of the world that sometimes leave us feeling lost and confused.

Along with words like "schmuck" "Schadenfreude", "doppelganger" "sang-froid" etc, some of my other favorites were:

Taarradhin: Arabic has no word for "compromise" in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement. But a much happier concept, taarradhin, exists which implies a happy solution for everyone as in "I win, you win". It's a way of solving a problem without anyone losing face.

A kind of intense nostalgia that only Portuguese people are supposed to understand. In his 1912 book on Portugal, A.F.G. Bell writes: “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning toward the past or toward the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”

This book is a lot of fun and well put together. The words are arranged country-wise and divided into sections with a nice introduction to each section offering entertaining explanations and stories behind the words and the people that speak them. Buy a copy or borrow it from your library and you'll never be "lost in translation" again.

Also,I invite you to list your favorite foreign words/phrases and their meanings, I would really love to hear them. I found one in a short story in the New Yorker today, k√¶reste sorg—sweetheart sorrow—is danish to describe the sadness one feels at the thought of a love affair nearing its end. The story, also titled "Sweetheart Sorrow", is a great short story on language and identity and is by David Hoon Kim who makes his debut in the New Yorker.

(pic: Courtesy The New Yorker)

Finally, Chimananda Adichie, author of the tremendous book on the Nigerian Biafran War "Half of the Yellow Sun" has won the Orange Prize 2007 for literature. If you haven't already read her novel, I urge you to do so, you won't be disappointed! She gave a very nice interview to the Guardian UK lamenting the fact that the west doesn't "get" Africa. "..."What I find problematic is the suggestion that when, say, Madonna adopts an African child, she is saving Africa. It's not that simple. You have to do more than go there and adopt a child or show us pictures of children with flies in their eyes. That simplifies Africa. If you followed the media you'd think that everybody in Africa was starving to death, and that's not the case; so it's important to engage with the other Africa."

I think she's right and one of the ways we can engage with the "other" Africa is by reading novels written by Africans who live that life. Often (and I am very guilty of that) we will read about Africa through a foreigner's eyes... let the Africans tell their own stories is what Ms. Adichie is saying and I concur.


Sanjay said...

Hey Lotus, Hope you are having a great Saturday. Another great post, you always amaze me at the eclectic nature of the books that you read and then help us your readers share that experience.

Thank you for telling us about the words that fascinated you. Did you find any words from India?

I do not have a favorite foreign word, your post reminded me of an article I read by Edward Wong in the week in review from last Sunday, in the NY Times. He as done some good reporting on Iraq and he mentioned a word. The word is "Sahel", it is an Iraqi word that means to utterly defeat and humiliate someone by dragging his corpse through the streets.

Apparently it is a word unique to Iraq, and that is what your post reminded me of. I am sorry I cannot offer something more happy.

After I read your post, I opened our issue of the New Yorker and went to the story that you describe. I am not done reading it ye but as you said it is a great story on language and identity. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

I did catch a bit of an interview by Chimananda Adichie on TV a couple of days back. An award well deserved from the likes of it. I should get hold of that book since you are pretty much spot on with your recommendations.

And what she and you say is indeed sage advice. Thank you again for a great post.

varske said...

In Other Words looks like a great book. I always think that people who don't know at least one other language well, miss out on such a rich new set of ideas only expressible in that language and not in their own. There are so many things I only can use the Russian expression for, the concepts don't exist in my head in English.

My favourite Lithuanian word is slapdriba for that wet slushy snow as it comes down, definitely not rain, but not quite snow. Sleet is the nearest in English, but slapdriba is much more evocative of darkness when it usually falls compared with that romantic atmosphere day or night when real snow is falling.

booklogged said...

I feel a great void in my life because I only know English. This sounds like an interesting book. One that would take much research to compile.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

You are generous with your praise, thank you so much! Yes, as I wrote this post, I had so many Hindi and Sanskrit expressions come to mind, but let me include something from the book:

"Dil Baagh Baagh ho gaya" (urdu)

Literally, "my heart became a garden" , such a beautiful phrase do express overwhelming joy, don't you think?

Thank you for the Iraqi word...when I read "sahel" I immediately thought it might have to do with friendship, because of "saheli" (friend in Hindi as you know) but I was wrong. It's a very, very powerful word and I do thank you for sharing.

How about something in Marathi now? :)

Yes, I think you and *A* would enjoy Chimananda Adichie's book very's about a little-known event in Nigeria's history, but beautifully told.

Laura said...

Do you have a list of books written about Africa by Africans?? I would be interested in that. I just bought the new Vanity Fair issue that is guest edited by Bono and is largely about Africa.

Lotus Reads said...

@Varske ~ I'm delighted to see you here, thank you for the visit and for sharing "slapdriba", it's such a fascinating word and to my ears it almost sounds the sound of snow-rain hitting the roofs at night! Again, thank you for sharing this with us. BTW, I will be visiting Poland this you have any book recommendations for me? We will be in Warsaw and Krakow. I would have loved to have visited Lithuania too, but we won't have enough time sadly.

Laura said...

oh, I forgot to tell you I had my first Indian food this week. Our boss bought us lunch at work from an Indian restaurant. Being the bread lover I am my favorite was Naan. The Tandori chicken was spicy and I put some plain yogurt on it and that made it better for me. I bet Tandori Chicken is like calling pot stickers Chinese food? Am I right? and unfortunately I cannot remember the names of the other dishes we had, but it was a great experience and lots of fun!

hellomelissa said...

since i don't know much of any other language besides english, i can't say what words i like in another language! but i know my kids have made up words that are so succinct i wish i could add them to the dictionary.

can't think of a single one right now, though. is there a word for that? like melissahasnobrain?

Sanjay said...

@Lotus..Thank you for your response.I agree that "Dil Baagh Baagh ho gaya" is indeed beautiful.
I will have to rack my brains for something similar in Marathi. :-/

Lotus Reads said...

@booklogged ~ I am an English speaker mostly ( I know and can speak Hindi, and a smattering of French,but am not as fluent as I would like), but foreign words and expressions fascinate me because many a time, they are able to say so beautifully what we cannot say in English.

@Laura ~ What a great question! I wish I had more time to compile a list for you, but the ones that come to mind immediately are: Leila Aboulela, Doreen Baingana, Wole Soyinka,Chris Abani, Rosemary Esehagu, Ama Ata Aidoo,Biyi Bandele and so on...I am sure equiano (Lost in Translation) can give you many more suggestions.

So glad you got to sample some Indian food! Yes, soft, buttery naans are always so delicious and they go so well with Tandoori Chicken which is a great Indian specialty! Come visit me and I'll make you some non-spicy Indian food! :)

Asha said...

I love that "schmuck" too Lotus!;D
I can't think new words right now.I bet my kids know some!;D

Radha said...

There are a couple of mumbaiyya words that have no foreign-language equivalent... for e.g. 'bindaas' when translated to english as 'without a care' just doesnt have the same impact, does it?

Lotus Reads said...

@Melissa - Oh, so true, kids are darned good at making up words! I remember S would call her hair clip an "Ahh dee doo", I never have been able to figure out why! lol

@Sanjay ~ I am sure there are some priceless Marathi expressions!

@Asha ~ Send for the kids, I want some teen speak! ;)

@Radha ~ Glad you chose something from bhindi (Bambiya Hindi). Bindaas is such a great word! I like dada-giri is the equivalent of bully I suppose, but a bully who wants to get things done!

Gentle Reader said...

"Espirit de l'escalier" is the story of my life! This sounds like a great book to have around.

And I agree on what Ms. Adichie says about not only engaging with Africa as a foreigner does--it's what the late, great Edward Said's book Orientalism lamented, the definition (and therefore marginalization) of the east by the west...

BookTraveller said...

My current favourite slang phrase in Chinese is 'niu bi', which translates as 'really cool' or something similar. The literal translation is 'cow's vagina' though, and it makes me want to giggle madly everytime I hear it. Perhaps not quite what you had in mind, but entertaining nonetheless!

tanabata said...

I love the French expression "esprit de l'escalier". Happens to me all the time!
I've had this book on my wishlist for a while. I really need to buy it soon.
There are some Japanese words that don't quite translate into English. A couple that are used on a regular basis:
shoganai - When something is out of your hands. I usually translate it as 'It can't be helped'. but that's not quite it.
otsukaresamadeshta - said at the end of, usually a work day, and it includes the feeling of 'thank you for working hard today, you must be tired'. :P

carra said...

My favourite word in other language is coquin it's a French word and in the dictionary it is said to mean naughty or mischevious, but really it means somebody (or something) who is very cute or nice but does naughty things... I don't know if there is an equivalent word in English but my husband (who is British) doesn't know one. I find this word to be absolutely charming.

Lotus Reads said...

@Gentle Reader ~ Yes, me too! I can think of great retorts but, alas, usually 5 mins too late! ;)

@Book Traveller ~ lol@ "niu bi" So I guess if said to someone they were "niu bi", they would take it as a complement? ;) Fun word that, lol!

@Nat ~ Thanks so much for your contributions...shoganai and otsukaresamadeshta are terrific words, and you're right, I can't think of any English equivalent. I am guessing the Japanese language is full of very polite terms and phrases. One of my favorite Japanese words in the book is
"Shibui" : As we become older, and more marked by the riches of life's experience,we radiate with a beauty that stems from becoming fully ourselves.

I think that is so beautiful!

@Carra ~ Yes, true, coquin is a charming word, it implies that even if this person is mischievous, you cannot help but be charmed by them! Anything in Spanish that you have learned and might like to share?

Optimistic Guard said...

What a wonderful review, I will try to find this book today and get my hands on it, just amazes me how you come up with such great books, do you find them or do they find you?

gautami tripathy said...

This is one book I cherish. It was a gift from a very close friend.

Olivia said...

Hehe, that's my kind of book. L'esprit de l'escalier is something I get ALL the time!

Happy Reader said...

Lotus - Sounds like an amazing book! I would love to read this one. As I was about to order it online, I came across a similar book called "Zounds: A Browser's Dictionary of Interjections" which sounds interesting too. You might want to check it out.

Parth said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. A silly contribution, but in old Hindi movies, mothers called out their sons:"Mere Laal", which literally translates to "My Red" :-)

Bellezza said...

A quick side note: the book you gave me, in conjunction with, arrived today. It couldn't have come at a better time! I posted about it in my blog, and again, I thank you very, very much.

Lotus Reads said...

@OG ~ Thanks! Guess most times they find me...I let them! ;)

@Gautami ~ You've got some great friends I notice they are always giving you books as presents!

@Olivia ~ yup, I sure know the feeling!

@Chitts ~ Thank you for the recommendation! Wow, the book has 500 plus interjections, I've got to add it to my collection and make my writing more colourful! ;)

@Parth ~ Now you have to tell me, why Laal???

@Bellezza ~ So glad the book reached you safe and sound..I'm planning on more book prizes so stay tuned.

gs said...

hi lr
here are a few such words.many of us buy something we like in a retail shop.almost immediately after the transaction is over, we question our own decision.marketeers call it "cognitive dissonance".it means postpurchase doubt.
in portugese there is a word called "sosegaad". a word i easily picked up when i lived in goa. it refers to an absolutely laidback style of living. and in marathi there is an expression "vaat laagli". guess what it means.hope to get this book soon.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, gs!

Sosegaad is an absolutely delicious word! I remember it from our Goa days and just the sound of it fills my mind with thoughts of not being in a hurry to do anything or go anywhere, one's just floating with time...such a luxury in this day and age.

LOL, I cheated with "vaat laagli" and asked a very good friend what it meant...he says it's to go kaput or bad...

Susan in Italy said...

What a cool book! I like the word schlep since all in one syllable you can express the idea of taking or carrying something or someone that is a pain to take or carry. "Ugh" I gotta schlep these bags up 5 flights of stairs." or "Ugh, I gotta schlep my boss to the airport.

I don't much like some interpretations of the Portuguese word, saudade. The word has come to symbolize a sense of fatalistic longing that, according to some can only be fully felt if one is Potuguese. Arguments in favor often allude to Portugal's short-lived stint as an empire and long, long long condition of decline from that power. I say if it takes us more words to say something, we can still feel it no matter what language we speak or what part of the globe we're from.

MyUtopia said...

The books sounds really interestin.

Dewey said...

Actually, l'espirit de l'escalier literally means the spirit of the stairs. Which is funny, don't you think?

This looks great! I have to add this to my wishlist.

jenclair said...

Love words, phrases, etymology, curiosities! One of my favorites is soi-disant which means self-styled or so called. and baraka or a spiritual power believed to be possessed by certain persons, objects, or tombs; a blessing, wisdom, or spiritual power.

Priya said...

OH wow, those phrases are so interesting! i cannot think of any word now, but if it comes to be, i will let you know...oh wait, in Afrikaans (a language spoken here in RSA which is very similar to Dutch) GATCOL means totally fed up, tired, and basically, I have had enough, it can be used in any situation too :)

Priya said...

er, sorry thats GATVOL not GATCOL...damn these typos

Lotus Reads said...

@Susan ~ Thank you for your insights on "saudade", now I am even more fascinated with the word. Anything you can share with us from the Italian language? I am so partial to Italian...not sure why that is, but everytime I say something in Italian I feel like my heart is engaged not just my throat, you know? "Schlep" is such a great word...I know it will quickly become a favorite of mine! :)

@myutopia ~ Thank you, it is, it is!

@Dewey ~ Yes! True, lol, now you have me wondering as to the etymology of the expression!!!

Lotus Reads said...

@Jenclair ~ Soi-disant, now that's a great word...guess it has its origins in the French language? And baraka is an absolute gem, where does that come from I wonder? BTW, Jenclair, it's so great to have you back and blogging!

@Priya ~ Don't worry, I am the queen of typos! :) Thank you for sharing "Gatvol", man, I can't wait to use that one!!! It's sad but there are no words from the Africaans in this book, so I am really glad you contributed!

Id it is said...

That was a fun read! Informative too. I've only read short stories by Adichie thus far, but I just put the novel you mentioned on my list.

Aren't all readers suckers for semantics even if it's in another language! The novel sounds emanated from strange looking words are, indeed, fascinating, especially when they carry meanings like 'razbliuto' does if only I'd known that word when I was writing all that mushy poetry in my high school days, hehe

Well, here's one that has always caught my attention and more...I even use it on unsuspecting audience

"Trath payee"- an expression that closely translates to - 'may lightening strike you'. It's an expression a friends 80 year old grandmother uses as an expletive, at times in jest, and often times when she dislikes a thing or individual. It is an expression from Kashmiri, a language which I believe is close to dying out; it's script, 'Sharada', is apparently dead and desperate attenpts are being made to revive it.

Sorry for the lengthy comment.

lucca said...

thanks for looking at the blog.

Have you read the series by Alexander McCall Smith? The books are set in Botswana - not as weighty as Adichie's, but they make such comforting read!

Nymeth said...

I read a book similar to that a while ago - it's called "The Meaning of Tingo", and I found it absolutely fascinating. I find the way different languages look at the world differently so interesting. I think I have to look for this one as well!

Parth said...

The word just means son or young one. The same word also means red in Hindi, the context decides which gets picked.

Sai said...

Hey Lotus:

As always a wonderful thought provoking post.

I didn't go through all the comments so forgive me for being redundant but here are my favorite ones Mumbai Street lingo or Bambaiyya words:

"Khadoos" I haven't found an appropriate word in english, sombre person or martinet comes close.

"Kanjoos" meaning miserly

"Lafda" which have a lot of meaning but it means I think some kind of a problem or a major issue.

Sai said...

Oh btw I also like "chutzpah" which is also taken from Yiddish like Schmuck.

Beenzzz said...

This does sound like an interesting book. I wish I knew more languages as well. I do make up words for certain situations and behavoirs though. They are a bit embarassing, so I won't share. HA! :)

Lotus Reads said...

@id it is ~ Hello! Yes, I think you will not regret reading "Half of A Yellow Sun", it is truly a wonderful book!

Thank you for the info on "Sharada" My daughter did a speech in school on extinct languages a few months ago, I wish I had known about this then. I'm sure she would have loved to have researched it.

"Trath Payee" is a handy phrase to know, lol, thank you for sharing!

@Lucca ~ Very happy to make your acquaintance...I lived in Madras for a few years in the late 1980's! :) I have heard of, but never read, Alexander McCall Smith, I know he has lots of fans though. Just last night I read on Nymeth's blog a review on his contribution to the Canongate Myths Series (they are excellent) and it's called "Dream Angus", I will definitely be getting my paws on that one!

Lotus Reads said...

@Nymeth ~ Yes! I have heard of "The Meaning of Tingo", it came up when I was looking for "In Other Words" on amazon...I have plans to borrow it from the library so I can add to my lexicon of foreign words! :)

@Parth ~ Thank you!!!

@Sai ~ I love bambiyya hindi...any wonder I've watched "Munnabhai" any number of times? All the words you've mentioned are favorites of mine too and they constantly find their way into my speech, especially when I am speaking to fellow Mumbaikars...hey, I think bambaiyya speech deserves its own post...there is a wealth of words we can explore! Thank you for reminding me of some! "Chutzpah" and many of the other Yiddish words are great too!

@beenzzz~ lol, nothing like making up your own words, you've got to share, c'mon, c'mon! :)

gs said...

i like to add 'bevda' which in mumbaiya terminology neans a habitual drinker. and 'lucchha'.that means good for nothing.

lucca said...

Curious about what you think of Minaret. Let me know when you're done.

Lisa Francisco aka AVIANA said...

I know it haitian creole there is a saying ( i don't really know how to spell it though)....

it says "ca say bon pou ou"

which literally means " that was good for you or good for you"

this is typically said when something bad happens to you due to something you should not have done in the first place..basically you deserved is said alot!

don't know if that's witty enough for you :)

I"m BACK!!!

I have some good news! It's small but good! I will post tomorrow!


Nymeth said...

On a slightly different vein, have you read "The Meaning of Liff" by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd? It's a dictionary of words which don't exist, but really, really should. It's both fascinating and hilarious!

diyadear said...

hmm.. sounds interesting...
but lots of hings just flew above my head :D

Lotus Reads said...

@gs ~ Oh lol, yes, bevda, it is so much more than just an inebriated man, right? I just LOVE that word!

@lucca ~ Not sure when I will get to "Minaret", I meant to, a long time ago, but I kept getting side-tracked. Don't you hate when that happens?

@Lisa ~ "ca say bon pou ou" , ohhh, I love the way it sounds! My grandmother grew up in Mauritious with a family that spoke Creole, so when I pronounce this phrase it reminds me of her. Thanks and will visit your blog soon!

@Nymeth ~ Many thanks for the book suggestion. I get a lot of joy out of words and language, so I guess I will be picking up the book. Again, thank you!

@Diya ~ Thank you for visiting! How are things going with your driving?

Anali said...

I really want to read this book! I love how you began this review, because everyone knows that deep feeling. We are missing a lot of words for things in English, but I guess that it probably goes both ways too.

I think I read somewhere that the word "privacy" doesn't exist in some languages, which I find very interesting. I guess the things that we choose to give words to shows a great deal about our culture.

I love the word "cinnamon." I love the sound of it and how I can conjure up the sight, feel, smell, and taste of it so vividly.

And the word "saudade" is wonderful. I heard the music first and when I learned the word, I thought that it was perfect.

Smita said...

razbliuto, Now I know what to tell that shmuck! ;D Great post

Lotus Reads said...

@Anali ~ So glad you brought you up the fact that there are words in English that have no equivalents in other languages, for instance, I was wondering, how would anyone translate these delightful English words....flabbergasted; mind-boggling; rip-roaring; thunderstruck? :)

@Smita ~ lol, nice to meet you! Will visit you soon!

J.S. Peyton said...

That book really sounds like an excellent read. I really shall be picking this up at first chance. Love you blog!

Carl V. said...

That sounds like a wonderful book. I love discovering and using new words.

Um Naief said...

this really sounds like an interesting read and something to keep around on the coffee table.

i wish i could think of some really cool words to add to your list, but since you lived in dubai for a while, you prob already know some arabic.

i'd say the one word that is used so much that it gets a bit irritating, is "inshallah" which means "God willing"... but... a lot of ppl over use in that if you ask them a question and they don't want to answer yes or no, they'll say inshallah, which you can take to mean that the answer is no.... altho, they'll never say that. but the thing is... when it comes down to them doing it, they don't... so i've come to my own conclusion about that word.

when my husband uses it to answer me... well, i don't allow it. for i know, that what i'm asking for will never appear or will never get done. now, i insist on a yes or no answer...

you have such an interesting blog. i love to read myself but find that i go thru long dry periods of finding nothing that i really like. i'm not a history buff, but i do like good interesting reads. i bought 4 books for a dinar a piece and the first one i started is quite nice so far. a lovely story about two sisters... which i can relate to.

anyway... have a great day. i love your hair. :)

diyadear said...

i got my driving license.. n i ve posted abt it oo.. do drop y n read.n whose pic is it on the rt hand side bottom???

Lotus Reads said...

@JS Peyton ~ Thank you! So nice of you to stop by!

@Carl V. ~ Me too! Language dazzles me!

@um naeif ~ Thank you for saying the nicest things! Oh, true, insha'allah can sometimes be a cop out for not wanting to commit to something. I am guilty of using it as that too many times! :) What is the title of your book, the one with the two sisters?

@Diya ~ It's me! :)

Angela in Europe said...

What a fun book! I have always loved the adverb "coquetishly." I know English borrowed it from French but I love both uses of it!

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Angela...I knew you'd love this one!

minipj said...

I just have to recommend The Meaning of Tingo to you even though someone probably has already. 'tingo' actually means 'to borrow things one by one from a friend's house until there is nothing left'. It also contains an amusing collection of animal noises in other languages and the world's longest palindrome...