A global tour of expressive words English needs


Title: The Greeks Had a Word For It – Words You Never Knew You Can’t Do Without; Author: Andrew Taylor; Publisher: Corgi Books/Penguin Random House; Pages: 202; Price: Rs 399

Marmalade, bikini, shampoo, garage, robot, honcho, banjo, and so on may seem English but have actually gathered from all over the world for there is no language it has not picked up words from. But maybe not fully. Say, one word only for those solving a practical problem with only the material they have, (affectionately) describing a child asking too many questions or being a decent human being.

Then what if you would want to describe, in one word, unspecified activities that make someone look busy or important at work, a willingness to overlook something twice but not more (like the American baseball term “three strikes and you’re out” but condensed) or behind-the-scenes networking to ensure a crucial meeting meets its objective.

You could well answer these questions if you were thoroughly fluent in Portuguese, Bantu, Russian, Dutch, Tshiluba (spoken in a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Japanese, or wait for these words to filter into English over time and enter our lexicons. More easily and more faster, you can read this delightfully informative book.

“To look at the figures, you’d think that we already have more than enough words in English – estimates vary between five hundred thousand and just over two million, depending on how you count them… Yet we’ve all had these moments when we want to say something and we can’t find exactly the right one,” says author Andrew Taylor.

And as the examples cited above and many others he has collected show, there are no exact equivalents in English – though they are much needed in “these days of global interaction, when we need to understand each other more than ever” and words say a lot about us.

Journalist-turned-author Taylor, a “determined linguist of questionable skill” but better in English, in which he has written 10 books, including biographies and on language, history and poetry, provides a rich and evocative tableau of them.

Covering a spate of languages, both flourishing and dying, he divides his selection of some over five dozen words (including some related ones or equivalents from other languages) into seven broad sections beginning with matters of heart and spanning elusive emotions and those with an extensive cultural connotation.

Quite a few will make you laugh, especially some from German and Yiddish (which corners the market in pejoratives) – and not only due to the droll manner in which Taylor presents them, but a few will make you think of what civilisation actually entails.

Many civilised (or rather high on technology) societies do not have something like “dadirri”, whose usual translation as “contemplation” does not do justice to this word from the Ngangikurungkurr language of the Aborigines in Australia’s Northern Territory or even “hozh’q” of the Navajo Indians (of southwest US), both relating to our relation with our world in ways that will surprise you.

Or take the Bantu language’s “ubantu”, for again its translation “goes almost nowhere towards explaining the ramifications of what has grown into a cross between a world view, a moral aspiration and a political philosophy in southern Africa”.

And, Taylor notes “that leaves out most of the associations that have grown around the word from the principles of the anti-apartheid movement and the achievements of Nelson Mandela”. And let Mandela explain the concept to you as found here.

There are many more inspiring and thought-provoking words from Japanese (especially), Farsi, German and many others, but pay special attention to the contribution from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego (the very bottom of South America), whose only surviving speaker is an 80-year-old woman.

Not only defining the word, Taylor provides a good introduction with short but absorbing stories about them, their usage and their implications. It is a fascinating look not only at a variety of languages but their underlying cultures.

And above all, it is a reminder that no language, even one as accumulative as English, does not have a monopoly over describing all facets of the the human condition.



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