Why We Love Untranslatable Words.

David Shariatmadari has a wonderful LitHub piece, actually an excerpt from his book Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language (see this LH post from last August) but well worth reading on its own. It begins:

Goya. A small word, but one that contains multitudes. It is one of those mythic beasts, the “untranslatables,” the foreign words that supposedly lack any equivalent in English. Lists of them spread virally online. Someone may have shared one with you on social media: it might have included utepils, sgrìob and saudade—of which more later. But for now, let us examine goya.

Urdu speakers know the meaning of goya in their bones; for the rest of us it is a mystery. When a native son or daughter of Pakistan hears it, whole worlds are conjured—scenes of tales told around a fire as the smoke rises into the crisp air of the Hindu Kush, of being dandled on a grandmother’s knee, of being told a cautionary tale by a village elder as a child and remembering it for the rest of your days. “Goya,” as one breathless internet account has it, “is an Urdu word that refers to the transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality . . . usually associated with good, powerful storytelling.”

Goya. Almost a mystical experience in itself. But look it up in a dictionary and you’ll find “as if,” “as though” and “as it were.” One Urdu speaker I asked translated it as “as though”; another, “and so.” It’s used to make or clarify a point—the sentence might be structured as “and so (goya), as I was saying.” Based on this, it seems to function as a discourse marker, which the Cambridge A–Z of Spoken and Written Grammar defines as “words or phrases like ‘anyway,’ ‘right,’ ‘okay,’ ‘as I say,’ ‘to begin with.’ We use them to connect, organize and manage what we say or write or to express attitude.” That’s it. No mystical campfires here. No “transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality,” unless the Hindu Kush you’re thinking of is the strain of cannabis. Whoever came up with this translation even seems to have got the grammar wrong: their explanation suggests a (very) abstract noun, whereas goya is an adverb, formed on the stem of a Farsi verb meaning “to speak.” (In that language, the ultimate source of the Urdu word, gooya means “as it were,” “as you would say” or “apparently.”)

So how did this happen? There is something deeply seductive about the idea that other languages contain codes that are impossible to crack, as I know from first-hand experience. When I was a kid, I used to sit in the hallway and listen to my dad speak Farsi on the phone to his relatives in Tehran. I had no idea what he was saying, and nor did my brother and sister. But we learned to recognize certain phrases, two in particular: tarjimmykonee and azbezutumkay. We used to repeat them, over and over. Like “abracadabra,” they seemed to be incantations. Dad was a magician. When, as an adult, I learned what these phrases actually were, I realized the extent to which we had filtered them through our English-attuned ears, distorting the sounds and syllables. And the meaning was more prosaic than I imagined, too. Tavajoh mikonee can be translated as “Are you paying attention?,” a conversational filler like “Do you see?” or “D’you know what I mean?” Arz be hozuretan ke is a polite stock phrase similar to “May I say, . . .”

I was a child, but adults should know better than to believe that other cultures speak in spells.

How I love that kind of demolition job! Go to the link for more (it’s worth it just for his taking Bill Bryson apart); the Persian verb he mentions is goftan (root gu; colloquial migam ‘I say’). Thanks, Ariel!

Comments

  1. Stu Clayton says:

    Lists of them spread virally online.

    Since ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly not to have an internet connection.

  2. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    This seems to be exactly the reverse of a discussion going on about a list of supposedly universally translatable words in another thread, and I’m not sure that it’s any more definitely true from this side.

    Yes, you can generally manage to explain the meaning of a word somehow in another language, but is that what people usually mean when they talk about translating a word?

  3. I’m not sure where you’re getting “you can generally manage to explain the meaning of a word somehow in another language” from the very straightforward examples he gives. The Urdu word goya means ‘as if,’ it does not mean “the transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality.” The Scottish word sgrìob means ‘scrape,’ it does not mean “the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky.” Full stop. People can have opposite myths about language just as they can about everything else.

  4. And he’s not talking about “translating a word” as such, he’s talking about the myth of “untranslatable words.”

  5. Trond Engen says:

    @Jen:

    I think the point is that the leap from “lacking an exact single-word, context-independent translation in English” to “being filled with a richness of connotations that no-one outside the culture can ever hope to understand” is … unwarranted. And even that is often a hype. I may have told this before, but when the film Serendipity came out, every fluff piece written repeated the point that serendipity is such a special word that it can’t be translated. Admittedly, I didn’t know the English word and had to read the long and winding explanation, but then it took me three seconds to come up with everyday Norwegian lykketreff.As for goya, I’m willing to believe that Urdu speakers use it in a sense similar to makebelieve, Or, to take another everyday Norwegian word, lissom.

    Edit: Reload before posting.

  6. Of course, a linguist will always be unhappy about ‘untranslatable’, just like a physicist will always be unhappy about ‘entropy’. But I think, in both cases, the words express notions about cultural phenomena rather than about either language or thermodynamics. Expressed badly and inaccurately, yes— but that, by itself, doesn’t make it all meaningless.

    An example is the British word ‘class’. You could look up the word in a dictionary— would that lead to a satisfactory translation?

  7. These words are always more satisfying if they’re in a language you don’t know. Knowing the language spoils the fun.

    I think that some of their appeal lies not in their untranslatability but in the discovery that something (some feeling) you already knew actually has a word for it in another language. One example in Chinese is 后怕 / 後怕 hòupà, literally ‘after fear’, meaning the realisation that you were in a much graver situation than you realised at the time — fear after the event. We all know this feeling but it’s nice that Chinese has a single everyday word summing it up. (后怕 / 後怕 is probably more likely to be used in Chinese than ‘fear after the event’ in English, which doesn’t belong to the register of everyday language for many people.)

  8. Google Translate gives ‘fluke’ for lykketreff….

  9. Trond Engen says:

    Right. Google translate glosses

    fluke “unlikely chance occurrence, especially a surprising piece of luck”
    serendipity “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.

    Norwegian lykketreff can cover both. And at least the plot of the film, if I remember that correctly, which is a big if.

  10. Of course, a linguist will always be unhappy about ‘untranslatable’, just like a physicist will always be unhappy about ‘entropy’. But I think, in both cases, the words express notions about cultural phenomena rather than about either language or thermodynamics. Expressed badly and inaccurately, yes— but that, by itself, doesn’t make it all meaningless.

    Did you read the piece, or my excerpt? The words cited are plain words; the “notions about cultural phenomena” are pure inventions.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Presumably serendipity should now be replaced by srilankanity.

  12. Mongolian has this word “khiimori” which really has no adequate translation. Forget about shamanistic concept of wind horse and the ritual object, it is also a very common colloquial word in Mongolian and, yes, it can’t be translated.

    Dictionaries translate it as ‘luck’, ‘fate’, ‘soul’, but it’s just approximation.

    What it roughly means is that a person has this metaphysical source which impacts his luck, fate, energy level, plain smarts even.

    It can be exhausted or replenished, it can rise or turn away, it can be described as vertical (which means things are going very well for that person), etc.

    So in everyday colloquial conversation about luck or human behavior, Mongolians routinely use this concept as if it was real, like, I don’t know, fuel or something.

    Example in colloquial speech:
    “Serving in the army will be good for you, taking oath and kissing the state flag will replenish your manly khiimori”.

    What English word could be used instead for this sentence to even start making sense?

  13. From Dovlatov’s Our’s: a family album (translation is mine, sorry)

    My maternal grandfather was of a very harsh nature. Even for Caucasus he had quite a temper. His wife and children trembled under his gaze.
    If something bothered my grandfather, he furrowed his brows and yelled in a low voice
    – ABANAMAT!
    This cryptic word stupefied everyone around. Instilled a mystic fear into everybody.
    – ABANAMAT! – shouted the grandfather.
    And complete silence fell over the house.
    My mother never grasped the meaning of this word. For a long time I too didn’t understand what it meant. It just occurred to me only when I got to the university. But I didn’t tell my mother. What for?

    OK. No googling and no spoilers from native Russian speakers.

  14. jcowan: I explicitly reference this in my dissertation which largely examines the evolution of certain particles from Old Sinhala to the present day….

  15. SFReader, mojo?
    But of course, there is no rule that every translation should be word-for-word.

    By the by, there are plenty of untranslatable everyday words. But they are kind of boring. For example, city names. There is no way to translate them, only borrow.

  16. mojo

    Yes, it’s similar. But isn’t the word a recent* import from African culture?

    * when it became mainstream outside of African-American community anyway?

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    Mongolian has this word “khiimori” which really has no adequate translation

    Well, Kusaal has win, which is the spiritual individuality of anything, especially people and trees (sic); or the Creator of the universe; or abstract “fate”; and is used in the Bible translation for (pagan) “god.” It’s also the single commonest male given name, where it implies that the bearer’s sigir “protective spirit” is the win of an ancestor in the male line. (The equation commonly made by hopeful anthropologists with the stem of winnig “sun” in Kusaal and its relatives is a figment, however, due to failure to note the phonology properly: the vowels are respectively [ɪ] and [i], and the tones differ. There are no sun-worshippers in the area.)

    There is no equivalent for this word in English or Mongolian, or even in French (it does overlap a fair bit with Latin genius, though with significant differences.)
    Yet I seem to have managed to explain win in English, at least as well as I can explain “soul”, at any rate.

    There is no equivalent of “soul” in Kusaal …
    But then there is no equivalent of “table” in Chinese. I expect they lack the concept.

  18. Stu Clayton says:

    There is no equivalent for “soul” in Kusaal … But then there is no equivalent for “table” in Chinese. I expect they lack the concept.

    They might lack the concept of equivalence. Even. Then they wouldn’t miss a thing.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    They might lack the concept of equivalence

    I shall make the absence of any concept of equivalence the core doctrine of the new religion I am inventing this weekend. I expect it to be very popular, and I anticipate selling lots of T-shirts on Amazon at the very least.

    The more intellectual punters will go for (the Kindle version of) the definitive Scriptures. I have already written a Perl script to generate them.

    All this is not that.

  20. They have though, because Mongolian word for equivalence is a borrowing from Chinese.

    Perhaps Mongolians regarded “equivalence” as untranslatable word and borrowed it directly.

  21. SFR: Fortune would be a good all purpose English word. What you’re explaining is a culturally bound concept that no longer exists in 1st world anglophone societies.

    Also sounds similar to kismet.

  22. Mongolian has tons of borrowings from Chinese, Sanskrit, Turkic and now from European languages.

    Might be fun to produce a paper claiming that Mongolians lacked all concepts words for which are borrowed.

    Especially interesting case is negative particle which was borrowed from Chinese too.

    “Mongolian Lacks Word For No” would make a good sensational headline.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    Way ahead of you, SF. I’ve done this for Welsh already …

    (I expect an acknowledgment in the references.)

  24. Do not seek for unity in the aggregate, but rather in the uniformity of distinctions.
    Kozma Prutkov. The fruits of contemplation #81

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    Curses. Scooped already. At least I hadn’t ordered the T-shirts yet.

  26. Stephen Carlson says:

    To be fair, discourse markers can be pretty hard to gloss in another language, but the mystical stuff is bullshit.

  27. ABAMANAT : Since I am sufficiently ignorant to be allowed to participate by the terms of the contest, I would guess that it’s related somehow to “abomination”.

  28. Are you sure there is no mystical stuff in discourse markers like “Inshallah”?

  29. For a long time I too didn’t understand what it meant. It just occurred to me only when I got to the university

    What an innocent childhood he must have had.

  30. I also loved this from Anu Garg of Wordsmith https://wordsmith.org/words/overmorrow.html

  31. Ken, first of all it’s “abanamat” and second, it’s pure Russian, might say even quintessentially Russian.

    SFReader, as usual it’s hard to say what in Dovlatov’s reminiscences is a fact and what is fantasy, but taking the story as realistic, he might have reasonably thought that it is in one of the Caucasus’s languages.

  32. I remember reading a fringe theory which attempted to link it with Slavic pagan religion.

    Perverts!

  33. David Marjanović says:

    Yes, it’s similar. But isn’t the word a recent* import from African culture?

    Wasn’t it invented for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me?

    “Mongolian Lacks Word For No” would make a good sensational headline.

    You could always follow the Klingon way and, instead of “no”, say “I should kill you where you stand”.

    But then, Latin really does lack a word for “no”. The closest it gets is “isn’t”.

    ABA[N]A[M]AT : Since I am sufficiently ignorant to be allowed to participate by the terms of the contest, I would guess that it’s related somehow to “abomination”.

    Well, you could argue that it designates an abomination. 🙂 It’s not related, though!

  34. The OED actually says mojo‘s origin is uncertain:

    Perhaps of African origin: compare Gullah moco witchcraft, magic, Fulfulde moco’o medicine man.
    Compare the (apparently reversed) form jomo, which is first attested slightly earlier (and continues to be found sporadically), but which probably shows an alteration of the present word.

    The earliest attestations of both mojo and jomo are from the 1920s. In the 1930s, another sense of mojo emerges—referring to morphine—which may or may not be related to the first definition.

  35. January First-of-May says:

    I’m reminded of an English textbook from the 1990s that I liked to read as a teenager, which claimed that the simplest Russian translation of the English word “babysitter” was a paraphrase along the lines of “woman who comes to us to sit with the child”.

    As far as possibly-actually-hard-to-translate words go, the first one that came to my mind was hearse “vehicle for transporting a coffin during the funeral”; it has an exact equivalent in Russian катафалк, but otherwise does not exactly strike me as a concept that is particularly likely to be represented by a single word.

  36. John Cowan says:

    For explicating the hard-to-translate with the trivial-to-translate, see Natural Semantic Metalanguage.

  37. The discussions about goya reminds me of phrases such as “Once upon a time” or in Swedish, “Det var en gång”. Even a simple phrase can have a lot of connotations. And isn’t that what we miss about the untranslatable words (or phrases)? It would be easy to translate l’esprit de l’escalier as staircase wit, but somehow it doesn’t have the same ring to it as the French. Just as I’m convinced that an English “sponge cake” can never taste the same as a Swedish “sockerkaka”.

    Isn’t hearse just a funeral car? (Likbil or begravningsbil in Swedish) I would expect that to exist in many languages. Katafalk in Swedish is apparently used for the stand where you put the coffin, and you have to add -vagn to make it a hearse. Not that I have ever used the word myself.

    I really like 后怕 hòupà! How could I have missed this delightful Chinese word! Speaking of Chinese, I’m very fond of 想 xiǎng. It’s a very ordinary word, nothing untranslatable about it in the least, but I like the combination of meanings: like, miss, thinking of. 我想你: I like you, I miss you, I’m thinking of you.

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    ABANAMAT

    Guessing that the last syllable was likely to be “mother” was already a clue: and LH-derived knowledge of Russian’s admirable preservation of PIE basic vocabulary in this area helped me to guess the whole thing correctly.

    LH is educational.

  39. J.W. Brewer says:

    Катафалк was presumably borrowed by Russian directly or indirectly from the same source whence English directly or indirectly borrowed “catafalque.” Catafalque and hearse are not, as of the 21st century, perfect synonyms in English, but they overlap and probably overlapped more back in days before rubber tires and internal-combustion engines.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    It would be easy to translate l’esprit de l’escalier as staircase wit

    It was in fact translated into German as Treppenwitz.

    And then the meaning of Witz changed to “joke”.

  41. John Cowan says:

    Apparently vits can still mean ‘witticism’ in Norwegian, and Wikt cites the phrase “Hva er vitsen …” meaning ‘What’s the point of …’. There’s a Yiddish saying involving vits which translates as “Who is a hero? One who suppresses a wisecrack” (lit. “keeps down a vits”), but I don’t know the actual saying, only Leo Rosten’s discussion of it.

  42. While working as a scientist in Germany, I was questioned one morning by a group of the office staff about how to properly refer to an old fashioned, not mobile phone, in English.

    I told them it was “a land line phone”. They refused to believe me. I still don’t know why, but they all 100% refused that translation because it wasn’t a single word.

  43. Back in the day, the device was known simply as telephone- there weren’t any other kind.

  44. It’s the same question as what did they call acoustic guitars before they had electric guitars.

    Or, presumably, what did they call dip pens before they had fountain pens. I don’t remember people saying dip pens when I was young, but I don’t remember ever seeing anyone use one either.

    In German “land line phone” would be a single word anyway, if they had such a term. Do they call it “ein unhandy”?

  45. German Witz can still mean “wit”, but only in a literary register and in some fixed expressions like mit Witz und Verstand.

  46. Stu Clayton says:

    For clarification you might say Er hat einen Festnetzanschluß. The telephone for that is always a Telefon, perhaps ein drahtloses Telefon. This term is never applied to a Handy, although that’s what a Handy is.

  47. Stu Clayton says:

    Mit Witz und Verstand
    Setzt man sich in den Sand.

  48. In German “land line phone” would be a single word anyway, if they had such a term. Do they call it “ein unhandy”?
    The term used in telecommunications is Festnetztelefon “fixed network phone”. From non-specialists, I have also heard “normales Telefon”, which gets rarer now that the mobile phone has become the normal kind of phone. I often travel on temporary assignments, and when I am in a new place, my mother for a long time used to ask me whether I already have ein richtiges Telefon “a real telephone”, meaning a land line. But even she has now accepted that my mobile is my “real” phone.
    EDIT: Strictly speaking, Festnetzanschluss is the line, Festnetztelefon is the handset.

  49. Stu Clayton says:

    Yes, but I can’t remember having heard Festnetztelefon often. I can’t be sure, since the expression is perfectly unremarkable. In any case I am not aware of a principle requiring the speech frequencies of “corresponding” nouns in different languages to be equal.

    I referred to this use of Anschluß because things seem to me to be that way. I was aware that it might seem peculiar.

    Consider how often the noun “privacy” is used in English. There is no “corresponding” single German noun used that often. Nowadays the expression Datenschutz is used in sentences about the same thing, but formulated in very different ways.

  50. “Privacy” used to be an untranslatable word in Russian too, but now there is a word for it – privatnost’

  51. @Stu: I work in telecommunications, so these distinctions are just more important to me than probably to the average speaker.
    For privacy, Privatsphäre can also be used, but yes, there is no one-to-one equivalent.

  52. PlasticPaddy says:

    @jc
    The Yiddish saying seems to me like a riff on or riposte to a Latin proverb:
    Seneca: caput potius quam dictum perdere
    Quintilian: potius amicum quam dictum perdere/perdendi

  53. David Marjanović says:

    Festnetztelefon (which is in my active vocabulary) is a single word about as much as land( )line phone is!

  54. Stu Clayton says:

    these distinctions are just more important to me than probably to the average speaker.

    Hans, I certainly see that. As I said, my impression that people talk more about Anschluß than Telefon (except when pointing to one) seemed peculiar even to me when I formulated it, but that’s what I remember. Maybe I am having a protracted senior moment.

  55. “Never trust your linguistic intuition” is a maxim I’ve learned to live by.

  56. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I don’t remember people saying dip pens when I was young, but I don’t remember ever seeing anyone use one either.

    Gosh. We certainly had and used them in my first schools. I think we just called them pens, but to distinguish them from fountain pens we might have said “dipping pens” (not, I think “dip pens”). I forget at what age I first used a fountain pen — probably when I was about 9. We weren’t allowed to use ball-points (or “biros” as we called them).

  57. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I told them it was “a land line phone”. They refused to believe me.

    I have a feeling that “land line phone” may be American. I would say “fixed phone” — still not one word, however.

  58. AJP Crown says:

    Another popular untranslatable is Age-otori, Japanese for “the state of looking worse after getting a haircut.”
    That is “scalped”.

  59. Trond Engen says:

    Age-otori

    Skamklipt.

  60. David Eddyshaw says:

    In my own (sub)culture, the marked term would be a (hypothetical) word for “state of looking better after getting a haircut.”

  61. John Cowan says:

    Landline phone is definitely a single phonological word.

  62. a (hypothetical) word

    age-masari
    あげ‐まさり【上げ▽優り】 の解説
    元服して髪上げした顔かたちが、以前に増してりっぱに見えること。

  63. @John Cowan: I definitely disagree about the pronunciation of landline phone, because for me, the basic term is just landline. That refers to the physical device, so I could say, “The landline is plugged in over there.” If I needed to make very clear I was referring to a physical object, I might say, “the receiver for the landline,” but “landline phone” sounds practically pleonastic.

  64. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Juha-様:

    ありがとう。
    でも, I cannot grasp the meaning of 上げ優り, because it is incompatible with the way my native language has structured my conceptual universe.

  65. John Cowan says:

    Brett: Ah. For me the landline is (agreeing with the etymology) the wire carrying the signals, into which may be plugged any number of phones or none So I would say “The landline enters my apartment by the front windows.” Technically I have a VOIP line rather than a landline, but this is just a matter of cabling unless I have to reboot the modem/router: it’s still coming in on a wire, just a cable TV wire, and the phone is an ordinary cordless phone such as I would use on a regular landline.

  66. David Marjanović says:

    or “biros” as we called them

    That’s the word I was taught 30 years ago.

  67. @David Marjanović: It’s a British brand name that was never a thing in the New World.

  68. Well, Japanese has the old term バックシャン bakkushan. I’m not sure how much it is used any more, but it traditionally refers to a girl who looks very attractive from behind but is disappointing when viewed from in front. It’s a combination of English ‘back’ and German schön. That is, ‘back-schön’.

    I’ve found reference to it being used more recently to refer to fashion that emphasises the back (e.g., revealing at the back, or with ribbons and frills). Apparently this goes well with hairstyles where the hair is up at the back (e.g., bob hair).

  69. @Brett

    I’ve never seen the “Biro” brand in Australia but the term was used for ballpoints, and possibly still is.

  70. My Mom taught me a Russian expression with similar meaning:

    “Szadi – pionerka, speredi – pensionerka”.

  71. There was a decade or two when we used to have devices known as “cordless phones.” They were landlines, in modern parlance, but the miraculous thing was you weren’t tethered to a fixture on the wall. I can remember speaking to my mother once and taking the phone outside so she could hear the racket made by 17-year cicadas. It seemed quite remarkable to me at the time.

  72. I remember that! It seemed like a miracle. And I remember getting Caller ID for the first time…

  73. “Szadi – pionerka, speredi – pensionerka”.
    The German equivalent I learnt from my grandmother is Von hinten Lyzeum, von vorne Museum. A Lyzeum was a grammar school for girls; the word isn’t part of the official nomenclature for types of school in Germany anymore.

  74. I cannot grasp the meaning of 上げ優り

    The genpuku rite of passage:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genpuku

  75. Owlmirror says:

    There’s a Yiddish saying involving vits which translates as “Who is a hero? One who suppresses a wisecrack” (lit. “keeps down a vits”), but I don’t know the actual saying, only Leo Rosten’s discussion of it.

    Rosten was clearly riffing on a Mishnaic proverb: “Who is a hero? One who conquers his [evil] urge/inclination” (which is in turn riffing on Proverbs 16:32, it says there (I see that “gibor” is given as “mighty [one]” or “warrior” rather than “hero” in more common translations)).

    I’d guess that “vits” has more than one sense, and at least one meaning is a cruel or cutting joke at someone else’s expense.

  76. Stu Clayton says:

    To keep your wits about you = stay sharp, on the alert.

  77. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hans
    https://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gymnasium

    Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts nennt man dann im Deutschen schon ausdrücklich die höhere Mädchenschule (eine Mädchenschule, die die bisher nicht vorhandene höhere Bildung für Schülerinnen ergänzt) „Lyzeum“, um sie vom „Gymnasium“ der Knaben zu unterscheiden, das ja auch auf sportliche Ertüchtigung im Sinne des Mens sana in corpore sano zielt: Mädchensport war bis in die 1910er Jahre (allein schon wegen der Kleiderordnung, vom unzüchtigen Bezug auf Nacktheit ganz abgesehen) undenkbar.

    So the boys could wear running shorts and jerseys (or maybe even go “oben ohne”) and practice sport in their Gymnasium, but the girls had to wear long dresses and go to Lyceum, where no sport was offered until sometime in the 1910s.

  78. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Juha:

    I begin to see … so 上げ優り was like when I offered my bulla and toga praetexta to the Lares?
    Autres pays, autres mœurs, as we say in Latin.

    Perhaps Whorf was wrong after all …

  79. bulla and toga praetexta

    Looks like it.

    masaru means ‘be superior to, surpass, exceed, excel, be better than’, while otoru is its opposite.

  80. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Never trust your linguistic intuition” is a maxim I’ve learned to live by.

    I remember years ago reading Cyrus Gordon’s account of his own higher education, where he cites a highly influential mentor (can’t remember who, unfortunately) telling him that you cannot rely on Sprachgefühl, even in your own language. At the time that struck me as bizarre, indeed practically a contradiction in terms: I’ve learnt better since.

  81. Lars Mathiesen says:

    skamklippet — that is certainly available and immediately understood in Danish, but I don’t remember seeing or hearing it before. It’s compositional, IOW.

    It’s vits in Danish too, but that’s just how we spell Witz after nicking it from the Germans. The non-joke sense is vid (long vowel).

    バックシャン — updated as the virgin killer meme/trend?

  82. @Plastic Paddy: That was the distinction in the past; Gymnasium for boys, Lyzeum for girls. But in the contemporary system, the grammar school is called Gymnasium both for boys and girls. A Gymnasium for girls only (a few still exist) is a Mädchengymnasium, not a Lyzeum, in the current system.

  83. John Cowan says:

    There was a decade or two when we used to have devices known as “cordless phones.”

    Mine still provides much better sound quality in my apartment. Manhattan is rather a fringe reception zone for broadcasting of any sort, thanks to the tall buildings. Over-the-air TV reception was extremely crappy, and over-the-air radio (only in use now in my radio alarm clock) only better because there was less to be distorted.

  84. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve never seen the “Biro” brand in Australia but the term was used for ballpoints, and possibly still is.

    Funnily enough, I’ve seen it a lot in Austria, but the logo was very easy to overlook, which may explain why I’ve never heard it pronounced. The term is Kugelschreiber, lit. “ball writer”.

    Mädchengymnasium

    That’s because the Occident has Declined And Fallen to such depths that nobody knows anymore that gymnos once meant “naked” – as quoted above as vom unzüchtigen Bezug auf Nacktheit ganz abgesehen “let alone the grossly indecent reference to nakedness”.

  85. Trond Engen says:

    Lars M.: skamklippet — that is certainly available and immediately understood in Danish, but I don’t remember seeing or hearing it before. It’s compositional, IOW.

    Yes. But I wonder if it may originally have denoted “public haircut for shaming”, like in the liberation days after the German occupation, when young women who had fallen in love with German soldiers were publicly shamed by the mob.

    It’s vits in Danish too, but that’s just how we spell Witz after nicking it from the Germans. The non-joke sense is vid (long vowel).

    Vits is joke in Norwegian too.

    Da, vid was, interestingly, borrowed as vidd “wit (humourous intelligence, inspired humour)” and its formal deprivative vanvidd “madness”.

    The Bokmål form is vett “brains, good sense, intelligence” and its opposite uvett “folly”.

    Nynorsk has vit and uvit in much the same senses, though vett is also used in Nynorsk. I think there’s a tendency to use vit more for deep-seated intellectual abilities and vett for intuition, making a full quadruplet. English wits is probably coming in too, but that would be polysemination of vits, not a fifth form.

  86. David Marjanović says:

    its formal deprivative vanvidd “madness”

    Wahnwitz “fantastic madness”, a more refined & poetic sort of Wahnsinn.

    Wahn alone now means something like “delusional mania”; prefixed to “imagination”, as Wahnvorstellung, it becomes “clinical delusion”. Paranoia, specifically a persecution complex, is Verfolgungswahn.

  87. That’s because the Occident has Declined And Fallen to such depths that nobody knows anymore that gymnos once meant “naked”

    So ‘gymnosperm’ means unprotected sex?

  88. Lars Mathiesen says:

    In the biological clade name it’s a bahuvrihi compound, ‘with naked seeds’. But otherwise, now I’m imagining high class sperm in morning coats. (It’s a sort of wedding, innit?) And high hats.

  89. Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
    And thin partitions do their bounds divide.

  90. J.W. Brewer says:

    The latest speculative newspaper punditry on the ineffable mysteries of translation can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/16/adrian-chiles-must-we-settle-for-fanny

  91. Well, doesn’t anyone have a better suggestion than “fanny”?

  92. David Eddyshaw says:

    I have the impression that this word does not travel across the Atlantic. Always assuming that I have correctly parsed what it is that Americans mean by “fanny pack.”

  93. J.W. Brewer says:

    The word refers to a different (although nearby) part of the anatomy in AmEng and has minimal overtones of vulgarity or taboo — it is so mild I believe it was used by my prim and proper sixth-grade teacher. I am given to understand that things are otherwise in BrEng.

  94. @ David Eddyshaw

    Surely that is even more reason for Americans to come up with a nice name for it.

    I assume that “cunnie” wouldn’t cut it.

    Perhaps the Scottish word “cundy” would be better:

    1. a drain or drain entrance
    2. a tunnel or passage

  95. David Marjanović says:

    True to form, Garundia:

    “● This article was amended on 16 Jan to correct the Croatian spelling of pimpek

  96. David Eddyshaw says:

    Looking on US Amazon at pictures of advertised “fanny packs”, they seem poorly adapted to what one would have imagined their function to be on first principles; however, I am wary of imposing my parochial British assumptions in matters of culture, and possibly of anatomy.

  97. John Cowan says:

    They were originally worn directly above the buttocks, but this made them hard for wearers to access and easy for pickpockets. When I wear one, it’s closer to my hip as a substitute for the hip pockets that some of my pants unfortunately lack.

  98. Another “untranslatable” word that comes to mind is Japanese 口寂しい kuchi-samishii ‘mouth-lonely’, which commonly refers to a feeling that you want to put something in your mouth (such as a snack or a cigarette).

    A conceivable result of being able to put a name to this feeling is that it might be easier to repress it… maybe.

  99. That’s a great word — a lot of these “untranslatable” words are for some weird thing that you don’t really see the need to lexicalize, but that’s a universally understandable phenomenon that you never realized should have a word.

  100. Stu Clayton says:

    Saugdruck, on the model of Suchtdruck. [This is a minor play on words for teutonophones, it’s too silly to explain].

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