Words We Don’t Have Words For

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Just when I’ve decided I’m a Luddite, allergic to new technology, and just when I’m thinking it would be nice to be unplugged and unconnected and off every grid imaginable, and just when I believe that if I had a magic wand I would eliminate my iPad and my Internet connection (and eliminate cell phones – please, somebody, give me an old-fashioned phone I can dial number-by-number, how I loved the sound of that dial) – just when all the above happens, I’m left stunned and delighted by something wonderful that comes to me via the aforementioned Evil Internet. Usually it’s something I would have missed entirely if I were off the grid.

Here is the latest: A Glossary of Happiness.

A glossary of happiness? Yes, it exists. Last week the New Yorker emailed me a link to an article about a psychologist named Tim Lomas who has been compiling an “online lexicography of untranslatable words” dealing with happiness. Lomas, a lecturer in applied positive psychology at the University of East London, put together 216 words from 49 languages. Each word on his list fits the bill – we lack a suitable single word which translates it into English. Since he published the list, the number of words has grown to over 400.

What takes Lomas’s list into deeper territory is the theory that the words which different cultures come up with speak to ““things that they value, or their traditions, or their aesthetic ideals, or their ways of constructing happiness, or the things that they recognize as being important and worth noting.”

I’m not sure we often think of happiness as something that is “constructed.” But in a culture where many people teach their children that being happy involves status, winning, and wealth, it’s worth wondering why we don’t have a word like “gumusservi” which is Turkish for moonlight shining across water, or like “boketto,” a Japanese word for someone who is gazing vacantly – somewhat stupefied – into the sky.

If you’re interested in other links to untranslatable words try  this list at Mental Floss (which offers you “iktsaurpok,” an Inuit word for “the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet”)  and at Rocket Languages (including “sobremesa,” the time spent after a meal when you sit contentedly and talk with friends around the table.) Also, these books looks great:

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Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders

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Other-Wordly by Yee-Lum Mak

Words do matter. As writers, we know that the right words, in the right order, make for great writing, writing that stirs up emotional reactions from our readers. Lomas thinks it’s possible that if we share this glossary of happiness, we might come up with ways to articulate states of being and feelings that – put simply – make us happier. “If you just put them out there and people are aware of them, then—almost like linguistic natural selection—people will find ones that appeal to them, and they might start using them.”

“Linguistic natural selection” – I love the sound of that. I’m going to go exploring for words. And maybe I should invent a word for the happiness I felt when I dialed a telephone number and heard the sound of the dial returning to its resting place – if you’re old enough, you know that sound. I don’t have a word for it.  Not yet.


8 responses to “Words We Don’t Have Words For

  1. Loved this, Julie. I remember that completed dial sound, too. Dialaphile? 🙂

  2. laurakvasnosky

    what a cool piece, julie!
    i hope your move is going well.
    i especially like the German compound words and wonder what their coinage says about German quiddity. like: Freundschaftsbezeugung (meaning demonstrations of friendship.)

    • Laura, I sometimes wonder about how German school children manage their spelling lists – that word has 22 letters!!! Yikes. And my move is going a little bit better, thanks – organized chaos now, instead of just all-capitals CHAOS.

  3. I enjoyed learning that at least the Northern European countries have special words for coziness, because that’s one of my complaints with Italian — no satisfying words for “cozy” and “home.” Casa is just casa, whether you want to say house or home, and for me those are two completely different things. Of course, there are some Italian words (can’t think of one now) that don’t have a clear translation into English either. I also remember the beautiful Portuguese word “saudades” that I learned when I lived in Brazil and for which we have no translation (“a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves”).

    • Renee, Lomas might say that the word “cozy” is translatable wherever there are lonnnnnggg stretches of cold weather – I bet there are Italian words about strolling around outside in the sunshine that we don’t have in the the Brit/American lexicon. Though it’s not a single word, the Italian phrase “dolce far niente” (sweet doing nothing) is hard for languages with Germanic roots to come up with.

      It’s strange, isn’t it, not to differentiate between “house” and “home”? In Spanish, maybe hogar (hearth) comes closest to the emotions we conjure up with the word “home”?

  4. Tikkkastop would be my word for “the sound of the dial returning to its resting place.” I remember it well.

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