Tag Archives: Dictionaries

Cool words from other languages that have no decent English equivalent!

19 Mar
King Gorm the Old recieves the news of the dea...

Image via Wikipedia

I was having dinner with an old school friend last night, and on the way home, I realised that we’d been talking partly in Wenglish, which is English, but smattered with Welsh words, phrases and very occasionally, some unique syntax (word order).  (Wenglish speakers have a lot in common with Yoda – you’ll often hear phrases that start with either the verb or the object – ‘Gorgeous, he was, gorgeous!’ or ‘Lovely day, it was.’)

There was one word in our conversation with no obvious English equivalent – hiraeth.  It means a sense of longing for one’s country, but often tinged with a sense of loss and longing for the past.

It got me thinking – what words exist in other languages that have no obvious English translation?   English has always borrowed words from other languages (and increasingly, other languages borrow from English) – but what cool words and phrases are there that we should use now?

One obvious example is Schadenfreude – a German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune.  (something which I’m sure we’re all guilty of from time to time.)

Esprit d’escalier – ok, a phrase, not a word.  This is the expression for those situations where you think up exactly the right, witty retort to someone – but only after the conversation is long over!  It literally means ‘the spirit of the staircase’ – that is to say, only when you’ve walking away up the stairs does the inspiration strike you!  Again, this is a situation I’m sure we’re all too familiar with.

Another Welsh word I love is cwtch. It means to snuggle up next to someone or have a lovely cuddle.  It literally means ‘a safe place’ – so as well as asking your beloved to come closer on the sofa for a cwtch, you’ll also put your coat in the cwtch when you come home!

I’m not making any claims that any of the following are true (they’re all from the web) – but they did make me smile.  Do they provide an insight into other cultures?

Yoko meshi – the Japanese expression for the stress involved in having to speak a foreign language.  It literally means ‘a meal eaten sideways’.

Tingo – this is from the Easter Islands, and means (this is brilliant) to borrow objects one by one from a neighbour’s house until there is nothing left

Rujuk – a word from Indonesia, which means to remarry your ex-wife.

I also came across the German word Handschuhschneebalwerfer.  This is used to refer to a coward – but when you translate it directly, it means ‘someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs’.  What a great description!

Let me also throw ‘gorm’ into the mix as a cool word that did exist in English, but we’ve lost.  However, we still talk about the absence of ‘gorm’ when we refer to people as ‘gormless’.  Gorm is an old word for understanding – and to call someone ‘gormless’ is to suggest they’re an idiot.  (There’s also a famous Danish king called Gorm, who I believe was the founder of the current Danish royal line).

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On going ‘gingerly’

28 Feb
Zingiber

Image via Wikipedia

One of the things I worry about unduly is opening toilet doors.  It’s not a germ phobia, more a fear there’ll be someone in there and we’ll both end up incredibly embarrassed.

It occurred to me that the word for how I open toilet doors is ‘gingerly’ – which is a strange thing as ‘ginger’ is normally associated with spiciness, impact, or if you’re a redhead like me, a fiery temper.  The last thing we’d normally associated ‘ginger’ with is a delicacy of movement – surely it should mean to burst into a room, rather than approach it with trepidation?

As it turns out, ‘ginger’ and ‘gingerly’ have absolutely nothing in common. Ginger has quite well established linguistic roots – with many scholars arguing its roots back beyond Sanskrit to earlier Dravidian forms.  If you look at the Latin name for ‘ginger’, Zingiber officinale, you can clearly see the root of the root.  *ahem*.

But by contrast, ‘gingerly’ is described as ‘of obscure origin’ (real meaning = ‘we don’t really know how it ended up in the language’.)

The OED suggests that ‘ginger-‘ (as the first part of ‘gingerly’) may be related to words for ‘gentle’ or ‘gentlemanliness’, deriving perhaps from the Old French ‘gensor’.

This etymology would fit with the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’, which relate to an elegant style of dancing – “And I can daunce it gingerly” first appears in c.1520.  The word then moves from meaning ‘elegantly’ to meaning something more akin to ‘effiminately’ – as in this usage from 1583: “Their dansing minions, that minse it ful gingerlie‥tripping like gotes that an egge wold not brek vnder their feet.”

The sense of moving cautiously is also pretty early, here seen in 1534: “We staye and prolonge our goinge with a nyce or tendre and softe, delicate, or gingerly pace [L. tenero ac molli passu].”  This definition of gingerly has continued to the modern day – although I particularly love this usage in Robert Louis Stevenson from 1885 as it’s truly the definition brought to life: “[He] gingerly transported the explosive to the far end of the apartment.”

So it’s not a brilliantly clear-cut etymology, but as the OED argues, there’s no better alternative.  There is a Swedish dialect word gingla, gängla that means to totter, but it’s discounted firstly on account of the sounds, and secondly as it doesn’t carry the meaning of ‘elegantly’ as does the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’.

At least now I can console myself that I’m actually opening the toilet doors ‘elegantly’ 🙂