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from the November/December 2004 issue

from In Other Words

These are among the words discussed by Christopher Moore in In Other Words:

Arabic taarradhin Many commentators have pointed out that Arabic has no word for "compromise," in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement. As we know, compromise can often leave all sides discontented. But a much happier concept, taarradhin, exists in Arabic. It implies a happy solution for everyone, as in "I win. You win." It's a way of finding the resolution of a problem without anyone losing face.

Turkish denize girse kurutur This means something like "he can't do anything right," but renders the sentiment in a more colorful and picturesque way, literally saying "he gets dry if he enters the sea."

Japanese yoko meshi Taken literally, meshi means "boiled rice" and yoko means "horizontal," so combined you get "a meal eaten sideways." This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a humorous reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally.

Thai jai yen Thai people are quite reserved, but their language alerts us to their hidden emotional depth. Jai literally means "heart" but it may also mean mind. There are hundreds of Thai phrases that use the word jai to describe many kinds of emotional states and mental feelings. Jai yen translates literally as "cool heart" and is something everyone tries to maintain, an easygoing calmness. In Thai, your heart can be described in many ways, including hot, black, strange, or little.

Urdu oont kis karwat baithta hai This Urdu proverb literally means "let's see which way the camel sits." The clever camel always sits so as to protect its eyes and nostrils from the sand whipped up by the storm. Then the camel rider can take shelter behind the camel's body. The closest that we get to the meaning in English is probably "Let's see which way the wind blows."

Mayan bol There's nothing like telling things as they are: the Mayans of South Mexico and Honduras use the word bol for in-laws as well as for stupidity. It translates as "stupid in-laws." The root word for bol also indicates a dazed befuddlement or stupor. Some things are universal, and it seems that most cultures find it hard to cope with the in-laws.

Maori kohanga reo Many indigenous languages face extinction, particularly in places that are less isolated from the world and where the people of the language group are a minority group dying without passing on their knowledge. This is true of languages in places like Australia, North America, Canada, and New Zealand. Kohanga reo is the Maori effort to stop this happening to their language. Literally translating as "language nest," this word refers to Maori-speaking preschools, where the language is actively being taught. Now more than fifty percent of the Maori speakers are under twenty-five years of age.

Boro onsay One of the many indigenous dialects of India, Boro is a language that adds various levels of meaning to the English word "love." Onsay is Boro's concise way of saying "pretend to love." Ongubsy more positively means "to love from the heart." Onsia has a level of sadness and translates to "to love for the last time."

Dyak (Borneo) ngarong Perhaps akin to Western ideas of spirit-guides, guardian angels or even little fairies or elves that come and make shoes at night, a ngarong is an advisor that appears in a dream. It is a "dream-helper" that distils an elusive idea and is responsible for the feeling of clarification one sometimes gets when one "sleeps on something."

Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea) bel hevi This word literally translates as "belly heavy" and refers to that heavy sinking feeling that often accompanies extreme sadness.

French métro-boulot-dodo A star among phrases for an untranslatable succinctness that sums up a pointless existence (subway, work, sleep). The full line of the original poem titled Couleurs d'usine by Pierre Béarn is even more eloquent:

Métro boulet bistrots mégots dodo zero "Subway work bars fags sleep nothing"

froufrou A rustling, especially that of a woman's skirt, one of the nicest onamatopoeic words around. This lovely word evokes the whole risqué world of thés dansants, soirées intimes, and that institution of the discreet venue, the chambre separée. There is no way to imagine these delights other than in French.

German torschlusspanik This word is literally translated as "door-shutting panic" and it captures the anxiety sometimes felt by unmarried ladies when they see the shelf and themselves on it. Once upon a time, the sensation could grip as young as twenty-one, but with today's career-focused women deciding to delay childbirth, torschlusspanik now refers more commonly to the race against the biological clock.

korinthenkacker A "raisin pooper," that is, someone so taken up with life's trivial detail that he spends all day crapping raisins. You can spot these types a mile off; just look around the office-it's that irritating pen pusher or filing fanatic whose favorite job is tidying the stationery closet.

Italian attaccabottoni A bore who "buttonholes" you and tells you long tales of woe. One longs to escape from an attaccabottoni but somehow it's always difficult to get away.

Dutch uitwaaien A useful and attractive verb meaning "to walk in the wind for fun." It conjures up a charming image of eighteenth-century Dutch landscape paintings.

uitbuiken Another "enjoyment" verb like uitwaaien, but this time based on the word for stomach, buik, meaning "to take your time at dinner, relaxing between courses." A nicely untranslatable extension of this meaning was recently created in a newspaper headline just before Christmas, wishing everyone Spiritueel Uitbuiken-literally, "spiritual expansiveness of stomach." It summed up that real Christmas feeling, or gezelligheid, of being together in a feeling of peace and unity between people. With a full stomach, of course.

krentenkakker Just so we don't mix up our Dutch with our German, this is the same word as the German korinthenkacker ("raisin pooper") but in Holland it means someone who doesn't like spending money. The equivalent to the German korinthenkacker is expressed somewhat more graphically in Dutch as mierenneuker: "ant fucker."

Spanish chungo From the Gypsy word for "ugly" and meaning generally "pretty bad." No translation can get across this word's almost comic sense of disaster. A Spanish joke illustrates the difference between bueno, malo, and chungo ("good," "bad," and "chungo") through a number of life situations.

Bueno: Your wife is pregnant. Malo: It's triplets. Chungo: You had a vasectomy two years ago.

Bueno: Your wife hardly speaks. Malo: She wants a divorce. Chungo: She's a lawyer.

Portuguese saudade A kind of intense nostalgia that only Portuguese people are supposed to understand. In Katherine Vaz's definition, which she uses to explain the title of her novel Saudade, it is "yearning so intense for those who are missing, or for vanished times or places, that absence is the most profound presence in one's life. A state of being, rather than merely a sentiment." 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."

Russian razbliuto The confusing bundle of emotions felt by Russian males for their ex-girlfriends.

Czech litost This is an untranslatable emotion that only a Czech person would suffer from, defined by Milan Kundera as "a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery." Devices for coping with extreme stress, suffering, and change are often special and unique to cultures and born out of the meeting of despair with a keen sense of survival.

Kolik jazyku znas, tolikrat jsi clovekem. This Czech proverb, impossible to translate, proclaims that you live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.

To read Simon Winchester's foreword to In Other Words, click here.

By arrangement with the publishers. Walker & Co. hold US rights; Fitzhenry and Whiteside hold Canadian rights; Oxford University Press hold UK rights; Allen and Unwin hold ANZ rights.

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