OK, everybody, I need some specialized knowledge. I’m involved with a book of foreign expressions, and I have the gravest doubts about some of them, which seem to have been taken over from other such books, the original form, if any, having gotten garbled along the way. If anyone knows what the originals of the following might be, I’ll be deeply grateful:

basa basa (Persian)
The Arabic phrase “basa basa” means to ogle, cast amorous glances or make sheeps’ eyes at someone [is it Persian? Arabic? Arabo-Persian?]

quibo (Chinese)
the clear bright eyes of a beautiful woman [qu- is clearly wrong; is it qibo?]

Also, I need some help with Bulgarian, Romanian, and Finnish; if you know any of these languages, please drop me a line at languagehat AT gmail DOT com. Together we can make this an accurate book, unlike the ones described here!

Addendum: I forgot to mention mamihlapinatapai, an alleged Tierra del Fuegan [actually Yaghan (Yagán)—thanks, Jess!] word meaning “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start”; anybody know where The Guinness Book of Records might have gotten this (“most succinct word”)?

Update: Beth at Cassandra Pages brought basa basa to the attention of her amazing father-in-law and reports the results in this post:

As I was making dinner that evening, the phone rang, and my father-in-law’s excited voice was on the other end. “You didn’t say it was bas bas!” he said, repeating the phrase in a way that, to my ears, sounded identical but obviously wasn’t. “I was sitting at dinner and thinking about it and saying it over and over to myself, and then it came to me all of a sudden – you see, in Arabic we have two “s”s. There’s the English-kind of S, like “Sam,” and then there is the other “s”. This is the other one. It’s called “sah” and when you say it the tongue comes up to the roof of the mouth.” He demonstrated. I tried to repeat after him, and failed, as usual. But I was happy that the mystery seemed to be solved.

“Oh!” I said. “That’s fantastic! Good for you! Now, what does it mean?”

“It means to look at someone….illegally,” he said, drawing the word out to its full length and clearly enjoying himself. “In a way designed to cause trouble, to make people talk.” In a society where young unrelated men and women weren’t even supposed to look at each other in the eyes, I could well imagine what he meant. He laughed, thinking back. “We used to say it all the time.”

I love that guy, and I’ve never even met him.


  1. “basa basa” doesn’t ring a bell in my Arabic-native head. But, we use “bas” which means “enough” and mostly “but/however”.
    But “basa basa” is probably not of Arabic-origin. You’ll have to check with other languages that influenced Persian.

  2. Wehr: baSbaSa (S = emphatic s) = to ogle, make sheeps eyes, cast glamorous glances.

  3. … that’s WEHR, Hans: Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, naturally.

  4. I have a different question: is to make “sheep’s eyes” the same as “puppy face”?
    Sheep are such dumb, submissive animal; who would want to compare anything admirable to sheep? On a second thought…probably someone with inferiority complex…

  5. The definition given for “quibo” is clearly one of those convoluted derivations that delight exoticists but make it almost impossible to find the origin. My first guess would be qībó 淒薄, which means “cold, chilly” (often in correlation with wind in medieval poetry), and may have been used (why not, after all) to describe the glance of a particular woman (coldness can be associated to brightness and purity, like “ice-pure”, though is most commonly associated with sadness), but really that would be going pretty far.
    P.S.: you must have an open “bold” tag somewhere.

  6. (That is, assuming that “qui” stands for “qi”, but, if the original was in coherent pinyin, it could as well have been miscopied from “gui” or anything with the final “-ui”.)

  7. OR “qu” (jamais deux sans trois).

  8. bulbul: Thanks, that solves that!
    Tat: “Sheep’s eyes” implies puppy love (youthful, innocent adoration); a “puppy face” would just imply innocence without the love aspect, I think (but at the moment I’m not sure if I’m familiar with the phrase).
    Jimmy: If you can’t figure out the original, it must be garbled beyond recovery; I’ll suggest they omit it. (And yes, I forgot to close the bold tag after Addendum; I always preview before hitting Post, but I’m a little frazzled today!)

  9. If you can’t figure out the original, it must be garbled beyond recovery
    I am curious to see what other sinologists or Chinese speakers come up with. “Qibo” was the first thing I thought of, but if you take “bo” as the alternate reading for ‘bai’ 白 (white), there are many combinations around “pure, clear, bright” that could have been distorted to form that *quibo barbarism. The most common would be qīngbái 清白, which can be applied to almost every thing, including the eyes, but there is no way to be sure that this is what the original source was referring to.

  10. LH, wait couple of years, and J will illustrate the “puppy face” for you…it’s irresistable.

  11. “Quibo” is a mistake for “qiubo” (both first tone) [??], literally “autumn waves,” but by poetic association, “girl’s bright glance,” as defined by DeFrancis’s _ABC Chinese-English Dictionary_.

  12. Ahh, Qiubo 秋波

  13. Ha! Thank you, David! I won’t even try to understand why I didn’t think about it; a lesson in humility, etc. Qiūbō 秋波 is in Su Shi, for Nature’s sake. That’s definitely the one.

  14. (Time to sing Asian Dub Foundation’s “Collective Mode”.)

  15. Disseminated intelligence wins again.

  16. United we stand, divided we just have no idea :o)

  17. Not to cover up my appalling lack of attention, but I’d lack to add that the literal meaning of ‘qiubo’ is also very frequent in poetry, though whenever connected to a “beautiful person” (meiren 美人, jiaren 佳人), it is clearly metaphorical.

  18. Heh: “I’d like to add, etc.”

  19. Many thanks, O wise hive mind! I’ll make the correction and raise a glass in your collective direction.

  20. glamorous -> amorous. (You probably already figured that out.) It also says (eg.), which I think means an Egyptian usage.
    The first meaning listed is wag, like a dog of its tail. That’s the only sense in Lane.
    So I’m getting an image of a wolf in a Fleischer Brothers cartoon.

  21. Siganus Sutor says

    All right for the appealing Arabic and Chinese gazes, but what about the unconsummated (but consuming?), fuegan, Fuegian look & desire? Oh, poor fate of marginal languages…

  22. There are apparently only two speakers of the “Fuegan” language (= Yaghan?) left, so you can probably get away with saying almost anything about it.

  23. Siganus Sutor says

    John, even though there aren’t many native Latin speakers left around nowadays, anything cannot be said about such a dead language. Maybe this language of “Latin America” has been thoroughly studied. Maybe the Latin Vulgate has even been translated in this tongue! Then imagine a Fuegian Canticle of Canticles and all the passionate glances and fiery words that could be exchanged :
    How beautiful you are, my darling!
    Oh, how beautiful!
    Your eyes are doves.
    (Song of Solomon 1:15)

  24. There is a considerable literature on Fuegan, but the language is obscure enough that there is plenty of opportunity to make things up, and most of the scholars of Fuegan are dead and unable to defend their work. I say, go for it!

  25. Siganus Sutor says

    Go for it you say? I’d love to (and I hope I’m not about to die) but… ahem… I’m afraid that my field of knowledge lies more in reinforced concrete than in linguistics.

  26. There were four fueguian tribes, yaganes, onas, alacaluf an haush. Most of them are extinguished….
    An yes, it seems there is a yagan translated New Testament!
    Here is a list of yagan words and some other items.
    Probably it may be yagan, as I found the word in some texts from Universidad Pontificia de Chile.
    Any case, “se non è vero, è ben trovato”

  27. Thanks! Here‘s a direct link to silmarillion’s Linguistlist URL.

  28. There are some dire books repeating phrases like this. Have you ever seen ‘They have a word for it’?

  29. I’m afraid I actually own a copy. See the link in “unlike the ones described here.”

  30. On “holophrases”, see: “Anthropology”, by Robert Marett.

  31. Excellent find! Here‘s the direct link, and here’s the relevant Fuegian bit:
    “For instance, I-cut-bear’s-leg-at-the-joint-with-a-flint-now corresponds fairly well with the total impression produced by the particular act; though, even so, I have doubtless selectively reduced the notion to something I can comfortably take in, by leaving out a lot of unnecessary detail — for instance, that I was hungry, in a hurry, doing it for the benefit of others as well as myself, and so on. Well, American languages of the ruder sort, by running a great number of sounds or syllables together, manage to utter a portmanteau word — “holophrase” is the technical name for it — into which is packed away enough suggestions to reproduce the situation in all its detail, the cutting, the fact that I did it, the object, the instrument, the time of the cutting, and who knows what besides. Amusing examples of such portmanteau words meet one in all the text-books. To go back to the Fuegians, their expression mamihlapinatapai is said to mean “to look at each other hoping that either will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do.” Now, since exactly the same situation never recurs, but is partly the same and partly different, it is clear that, if the holophrase really tried to hit off in each case the whole outstanding impression that a given situation provoked, then the same combination of sounds would never recur either; one could never open one’s mouth without coining a new word. Ridiculous as this notion sounds, it may serve to mark a downward limit from which the rudest types of human speech are not so very far removed. Their well-known tendency to alter their whole character in twenty years or less is due largely to the fluid nature of primitive utterance; it being found hard to detach portions, capable of repeated use in an unchanged form, from the composite vocables wherein they register their highly concrete experiences.” [Emphasis added.]
    (When was that thing written? Aha, Wikipedia says 1912. Talk about your outdated attitudes!)

  32. David Marjanović says

    Isn’t that just polysynthesis? (The first example at least.)

  33. It sounds like the stage direction to a primitive Fuegan soap opera:
    “Oh John!”
    “Oh Mary!”
    [Both mamihlapinatapai as the camera fades]

  34. Holophrase is frecuently used in psicology when describing the steps between prelinguistic and linguistic stage in childhood. Also Lacan has used the “holophrase” concept.
    Is yagàn a polysinthetic language as the hokana ones? Is “mamihlapinatapai” a polysinthesis or an holophrase?

  35. I’m a little frazzled today
    O, sorry. I haven’t read all of the above, and this is impertinent of me. But does frazzledness explain sheeps’ as opposed to sheep’s in the original post, or has the written language changed without me being informed? (Wouldn’t be the first time!)

  36. I thought I posted this yesterday, but I guess I never got past the preview. But I’ve done a little more research, so it’s all for the best.
    On mamihlapinatapai, the oldest reference I can find is 1916, and the definition is pretty much the same, but worded differently:
    The Guinness version seems to me an ‘update’ of this ‘old-fashioned’ rendering.
    The reference is found on p. 562 of the following:
    Ralph Barton Perry. ‘The Truth-Problem. II.’ The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. 13.21 (1916): 561-573.
    No reference is given by the author, though it may be ‘the anthropologists’ mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph. The only reference given nearby is to a quote on the ‘evolution’ of languages in the following work:
    ‘R.R. Marett, “Anthropology,” p. 141. Cf. ch. V, passim.’
    Snippet view on Google Print confirms that Marett discusses Tierra del Fuego in this part of book: the bottom of page 138 reads ‘Take the inhabitants of that cheerless spot, Tierra del Fuego, ….’
    The word mamihlapinatapai is given by Perry as an example of ‘holophrastic or primitive’ language in that it ‘fails to discriminate identities.’ The evolution of language, we’re told, moves away from the holophrastic and toward the analytic.
    Modern references on game theory rely either upon Guinness or on a book called Prisoner’s Dilemma by W. Poundstone (1992).
    According to one such article (Kollock, Peter. ‘Social Dilemmas: The Anatomy of Cooperation.’ Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998): 183-215), Poundstone on p.203 ‘reports an anecdote by Anatol Rapoport that “the Fuegian language of the natives of Tierra del Fuego contains the word mamihlapinatapai, meaning, `looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something that both parties desire but are unwilling to do. “‘
    Rappaport’s ‘anecdote’ is clearly an unattributed reference to Perry, or if Perry relied on Marett, then to Marett.The definition is the same with only the hyphens removed.

  37. But now I see that it’s redundant.

  38. I’m left a little confused. Is there a claim that bears are native to Tierra del Fuego?
    I claim no expertise, but I have done a certain amount of reading about Tierra del Fuego, and I never heard any mention of bears living there.
    Are there bears there? What kind of bear?

  39. But does frazzledness explain sheeps’ as opposed to sheep’s in the original post
    No, that’s not me, that’s the author of the book, which (like all books before they go through the editing/proofreading process) is full of such minor errors. My purview at this stage is the foreign words.
    Dennis: Ouch! It’s no fun to do all that work and then discover you’ve been pipped. It looks like Merrett (1912) is the original source, at least for our purposes; he may have gotten it from somebody else, but attribution was not one of his virtues.
    Are there bears there?
    No, the bears are from elsewhere; he’s talking about various languages, then says “To go back to the Fuegians…”

  40. Jess Tauber is working on Yahgan at the moment. I’ve sent you an email with her contact details.

  41. Bas or Bas Bas in my dialect of Farsi means that’s enough. I can kind of see how it could have came from ogling…
    How come you need to know these wide array of words? I am just curious.

  42. By the way, I like the HUGE array of links on language resources you have. Thanks!

  43. I’m helping edit a book of foreign expressions, and you’re welcome!

  44. jess tauber says

    Contra Claire, Jess Tauber is a HIM. I’ve just never been that shapely….
    I’ve been studying Yahgan for nearly 10 years, collecting, analyzing, reediting and consolidating known (and unknown) materials on the language all with an eye towards its revitalization. Two years ago I accidentally discovered moldering at the Library of Congress one of the ‘lost’ grammar manuscripts of Yahgan. Its an early one, but it is much richer materially than anything else. The dictionary published in 1933 in Austria is a disaster editorially, and I’ve been working to put together a new one based on all sources, including corrections by Thomas Bridges the editors felt unnecessary to include (their mistake…). The original manuscripts showed stresses not carried over to the published version.
    One of the great sadnesses of Yahgan history is that the bulk of materials produced by Rev. Bridges in the late 19th century were lost (don’t even get me started here…). Surviving works are largely earlier, less complete ones.
    The Omora ethnobiological conservancy (which run a park outside Ukika and Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, where the Yahgan village is) has produced a CD of bird-related myths with Yahgan narration by two of the then three last speakers. About a half-hour of spoken Yahgan, accompanied by translations into English, or Spanish (two versions).
    My examination of these stories indicates that though the currently surviving dialect has some phonological, lexical, and grammatical differences from the one Bridges wrote about, it isn’t radically different. I doubt speakers of any of the dialects would have had too much trouble understanding each other.
    There has been some interest expressed in the stress of words- based on what I’ve seen and heard, Yahgan appears to have been a mora-counting language, rather than one with fixed word stress. That is, there are stresses placed regularly and predictably along long stretches of material. Some roots attract stress, others repel it, and still others are ambiguous. They all work together to create the final product stress-wise.
    Anyone interested in the language should look at the Yahoo Group Waata Chis (Old News):
    I’m slowly creating updated Yahgan info at Wikipedia, and there should eventually be permanent linguistically oriented posted at Dartmouth. This week I’ll be scanning more material for the CDROM I’ll be making of all extant documentation.
    Hala yella (gotta go…)
    Jess Tauber

  45. Many thanks, Jess! I’ve added the Wikipedia link to the entry. So where would the stress be in mamihlapinatapai?

  46. Michael Dunn says

    A bit further perhaps related to basabasa. Egyptian colloquial also has a (related?) baSS, buSS meaning “look,” often used almost identically with “shuf,” and that would seem, given Wehr’s identification of baSabaSa as Egyptian, to suggest a connection. Egyptian Arabic doesn’t usually borrow directly from Persian, if there is indeed a Persian source here, but might have done so via Turkish. Not knowing Persian or Turkish that part’s beyond me.
    Michael Dunn

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  48. What’s next? “Autumn Waves, an eye-opening poetry review for the careless Micrasiatic sinologist”?
    (Can you tell I’m still mad about it? I swear if I ever blog again, I’m a name this thing “” or something; it’s name-rectification time.)

  49. jess tauber says

    To answer some of the comments and questions above- Yahgan is NOT polysynthetic, though some of the words can be very, very long. Though ‘polysynthesis’ was used a century ago to mean any long word stem composed of many different morphemes (some of which go beyond the merely derivational and inflectional to include pragmatically oriented ones), in recent years linguists use the term to refer to only the inflectional criteria (both subject and object pronouns on the verb, incorporation of generic nominals), often with ‘normal’ free lexemes relegated to adjunct status (not necessary to interpret the sentence)- the inflected word is equivalent to the sentence, or even more than one.
    Yahgan, on the other hand, is an agglutinating, serializing language- that is, several verb roots (plus some derivational materials) are strung together to make a compound, but only the subject pronouns are bound. Thus only intransitives could be construed as full sentences. Agglutinating means that the morphemes are just added one to the other, each bringing their meaning to mixture. Yahgan does though have an interesting specialization of the serial verb stem- one where there is a prefix delineating the instrumental means before the main root, and/or a suffix following the main root that describes the path of motion or static position of the action.
    So for instance one could say hat-ak-u:-vnggu:ta-kvn-ude: ‘I broke it in the boat or floating by hitting it with a blow’ hat- is first person subject (t epenthetic), ak- means ‘by striking’, u:- causative/let, vnggu:ta- ‘break/split’, kvn(a) ‘floating/in boat’, -ude: past tense.
    Yahgan has dozens of elements to choose from in both prefix instrument/bodypart and suffix position/pathway terms. All are relatively generic. Specifications can be made by adding in other elements (for instance ak-isiu: by hitting in a very narrow or controlled way, such as superficially.
    A very large percentage of the dictionary consists of stems made up of just such combinations with normal roots- the dictionary is often touted as having ‘32000’ words (actually it has 23000- the final lost one had the larger number), but Bridges could easily have created a document with millions (he notes he’s suppressed quite a few).
    The stem mamihlapinatapai (or ma(m)-ihlvpi-:n-at-a:pai = passive/reflexive-‘be at a loss which way to go’-state-achievement-dual
    is neither serializing nor contains the complex described above. It is a simple root ‘ihlvpi’ plus derivational elements. So much for concise. As for ‘looking at each other, etc.’ which author after author cites or elaborates upon without even consulting the actual dictionary texts or grammars (the form was listed in the PREFACE- is that how deep people actually are willing to go? Wow.), Bridges tended to use illustrative examples rather than simple definitions, in order that the reader should get a better feel for the meaning. Apparently latecomers to the table haven’t caught this particular trick, and so we end up getting a linguistic urban legend, self-perpetuating and little more than party chit-chat. Who knows, maybe this particular tidbit helped someone get lucky, somewhere…..
    I’ll reconstruct the stress pattern of the word this week and send it on.
    Jess Tauber

  50. Jess, thanks very much indeed! I’m extremely lucky to have the input of the only person on the planet who can actually analyze this word and perhaps derail the progress of this linguistic urban legend!

  51. Well, I certainly wish we had a simple word in English that meant “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start” as I’ve experienced it more times than I wish to count. (Is that an example of numerifying?)

  52. Does anyone know what this might mean? (Im writing how it sounds and it is not neccisarily the correct spelling)– “Qa’ishidarri”
    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  53. Can you give us any context or other useful information? Where and how did you come across this word or expression?

  54. Bathrobe says

    Just a comment on 秋波, this term has been borrowed into Japanese (as usual) and is used in the expression 秋波を送る shūha o okuru, which means (of a woman) ‘to cast amorous glances at’ or ‘make sheep’s eyes at’ (which are both expressions from the dictionary definition).

  55. marie-lucie says

    I remember this discussed on Language Log, before I encountered Language Hat. In my recollection, the discussion there was not as thorough as the one here!
    Thanks to Jess Tauber for sharing his expertise on Yahgan and for his elucidation of the correct meaning of “polysynthetic”.

  56. Yes, I was very pleased that he dropped by. It’s wonderful when scholars take the trouble to share their knowledge.

  57. I would even call it their duty, though like all duties of imperfect obligation, it’s a question just when and where that duty must be fulfilled.

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