Stolen Words

(Image: Steve Buissinne via Pixabay)

I would love to speak a thousand languages, mainly just to capture all those words that leave English speechless. If we cannot say it, can we think it? I know we can still feel it—look how often we wave our hands about, trying to find the right words. To “gloss” something is to explain or define it, but without the right vocabulary, we are more likely to gloss over it. When we can name that bit of experience with precision, we can grasp it, share it, remember it, carry it forward.

This is why I keep my List. Words from other languages that I covet like a collector outbid at the last minute. Over the years, I have begun to see sad patterns. English is as bare as a tree in winter when it comes to our relationship with nature. It is just as impoverished in speaking of death or the meaning of life. It often lacks humility—or coziness—or carefree joy. And its vocabulary for deep relationship reminds me of a remark Saul Bellow made years ago: “In expressing love, we belong among the underdeveloped countries.”

The Japanese name shinrin-yoku, the relaxation that comes when we are in nature. The Dutch name uitwaaien, the bracing effect of a walk in the wind; Greeks use thróisma for the sound of wind rustling through trees. Swedes value gökotta, waking early and going outside to hear the first birds sing. In Norway, friluftsliv means living in tune with nature.

The Indonesian word talkin means to whisper instructions to the dying. Americans are bad at that, far too bent on control to talk much of death. We are also bad at dadirri, the Ngan’gikurunggurr word for deep, reflective listening. We hate to admit our fears and flaws—can you imagine a word in English for koro, the Chinese name for the hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking? Unthinkable. Nor do we want to acknowledge torschlusspanik, a German allusion to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. The Scots have even named tartle, that awful frozen moment when you are introducing someone and realize you have forgotten their name.

Nordic countries need coziness, and they have mastered it. Hyggelig is a constellation of warm friendship, glowing relaxation, and ease. Southeast Asian countries instill an exquisite politeness: The Thai term kreng-jai means “deferential heart,” a reluctance to burden someone with an inconvenient request.

Adopting the Bantu phrase mbuki-mvuki—to shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance—would do us more good than ten years of therapy. Portuguese has desbundar, to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun. (We say cut loose or lose control, a dead giveaway of our problem.) We could also use some of that Spanish duende, the juicy, erotic energy that makes things shimmer.

English speakers fall in love, head over heels. But Norwegians have a particular word for that intense initial joy: forelsket. In Yagan, spoken in Tierra del Fuego, mamihlapinatapai is “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.” Kilig is the Tagalog name for the flutter of nerves when you talk to someone you find attractive. We just call it butterflies in the stomach. The Japanese speak of koi no yokan: sensing, the minute you meet someone, that you will inevitably fall in love with them. Japanese also gives a special name, nakama, to friends so close you consider them family; ah-un is the unspoken communication possible between such friends.

Portuguese has saudade, when you are longing for someone you loved and lost. It is quite different from Russian’s raabliuto, the feeling we retain for someone we once loved. Here, we just try to “get over them”; Italian offers the subtler warning of cavoli riscaldati—literally, reheated cabbage—to keep people from trying to revive that love. And India’s Boro language offers onsra, “to love for the last time” because you know your love will not last.

There is great tenderness in other languages: Brazilian Portuguese names cafuné, the act of gently running your fingers through someone’s hair. In Tagalog, gigil is the irresistible urge to pinch the chubby cheeks of someone you love or squeeze them close in a tight hug. The Welsh word for hug, cwtch, also means “a safe, welcoming place.” A Dutch relationship reaches a stage of questing, in which you welcome someone to sprawl on your bed with you and chat. The French give us retrouvailles, the joy of meeting loved ones again after too long apart. Its syllables reach out, then stretch the moment as long as possible.

And where we would simply say we will love someone until the day we die, Arabic offers ya’aburnee, meaning, “You bury me”—that thing I say to my husband all the time in way more words: “You have to let me die first because I would be too miserable without you.” He should feel naz, the Urdu word for the proud assurance you feel when you know someone loves you wholly, utterly, and unshakably.

At his Positive Lexicography Project, Dr. Tim Lomas, who lectures in psychology at the University of East London, has gathered many of my favorite words and quite a few more, sweeping them up like hundred-dollar bills dropped from the sky. When he gave a Ted talk in Zurich, he called it “Expanding Our Experiential Horizons Through Untranslatable Words.” Why? Because they let us notice and value what we might otherwise breeze past. Now, instead of just wishing I could come up with snappy one-liners, I will hope for pihentagyú, the Hungarian “relaxed brain” that allows clever jokes and creative solutions to surface. Also desenrascanço, the Portuguese way of artfully disentangling oneself from a troublesome situation.

As for what our entire country needs right now, here are five words that might come in handy: mokita, used in New Guinea for the truth that everybody knows but nobody speaks. Farpotshket, Yiddish for something that is all fouled up, especially as the result of an attempt to fix it. The Arabic asabiyyah, a sense of community spirit, common purpose, and cooperation. Erklärungsnot, the German word invoked when we realize we have no explanation for the big questions of life. And the Dutch word levensperpectief, the sense that there is something to live for nonetheless.