Oftentimes when we are watching a British television program like an episode of Masterpiece Theater and one of the characters conveys a colloquialism, my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) will ask, “What does that word mean?”
The funny thing is that when I hear the word in question communicated in conversation, I understand its meaning at a visceral level, but I find it hard to articulate this meaning to someone else.
Words are funny old things when you come to think about it. Mayhap the Monty Python team were onto something when they categorized words as being “tinny” or “woody.” When I’m writing, I often find myself hunting for a word that best expresses what I wish to say. It would be nice if there were a word in English whose meaning was “searching for the right word.” It’s sad that the closest we have is the French phrase, le mot juste, which means “the right word” but sounds better.
Ah, the French. Who else would come up with a phrase like, l’appel du vide (“the call of the void”) to describe the emotion of walking along the top of a cliff and feeling the urge to throw yourself off (possibly because one’s soufflé failed to rise)?
Speaking of words and emotions, did you know that the word emodiversity refers to the capacity to experience a lot of different emotions? On the one hand, this is considered by psychologists to be a good thing. On the other hand, there are those who fall prey to lexithymia, which is the condition of overthinking one’s emotional state and tediously describing it to others.
I discovered these latter tidbits of trivia in a captivating column — The Benefits of Emodiversity — by David Brooks in The Atlantic. As part of this, I also ran across a rather interesting Reverse Word Dictionary / Thesaurus on the OneLook.com website.
One of the things I find interesting is words and phrases in other languages for which there is no equivalent in English. Of course, there’s the classic German schadenfreude, which refers to the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another. It probably goes without saying that these are the people who brought us backpfeifengesicht, which can be translated as “a face that’s badly in need of a fist.”
Have you ever shared a mamihlapinatapai with anyone? I often exchange one with my wife or — as is more commonly the case — she shares one with me. This word, which is derived from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, is considered to be one of the hardest words to translate because it refers to “A look that — without words — is shared by two people who are both hoping that the other will offer to do something that both parties desire but are unwilling to do themselves.”
Unfortunately, now that I come to think about it, none of the above was what I wanted to talk about here.
As you may recall, in a couple of months’ time as I pen these words, I will be donning my thickest socks and departing for the city of Trondheim in Norway (see Norway & FPGA Forum, Here I Come!). As part of this exhilarating escapade, I will be giving a guest lecture to unsuspecting students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
For reasons I may or may not divulge at some future time, I’m looking for a Norwegian word that will provide a poser when I ask the students to explain to me what it means — ideally a word that has a sufficiently amorphous gestalt to make it confusing to explain in Norwegian, where any such confusion will be exacerbated when attempting to translate its meaning into English.
What say you? Do you have any ideas you’d care to share?