12 December 2011

What's in a Word?

By Fran Rizer

In 2011, the English language passed the million word mark, and folks at the Global Language Monitor estimate that the language gains a new word every ninety-eight minutes. As writers, words are our primary tools. This is daunting.

When I think of the changing language, I confess my mind goes to changes in my lifetime--most of them as they relate to me. I confess I've been a cougar at times in the past, but I didn't know that was the word for it.

Some words "date" the speaker. Hardly anyone other than little old ladies in nursing homes use the word "rouge," as in, "That woman wore so much rouge she looked like a clown." (Or like a harlot depending upon who's talking.) It's been "blush" for years.

"Horrific" was created in my lifetime. A combination of "terrific" and "horrible," I refused to use that word for years, but I do now.

Eponyms are common words that are derived from proper names. Caesarian section was named after Julius Caesar, who was "plucked from his mother's womb." The saxophone was named for the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax.

Since words have always fascinated me, I sometimes visit the Global Language Monitor. On December eleventh, the Monitor quoted Bill DeMain's 7/22/11 list of Fifteen Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent. I generally leave the lists up to John and Leigh, but I thought these were too great not to pass on.

1. Zhaghzhagh (Persian)
The chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage.

2. Yuputka (Ulwa)
A word made for walking in the woods at night. It's the phantom sensation of something
crawling on your skin.

3. Slampadato (Italian)
Addicted to the infra-red glow of tanning salons? This word describes you.

4. Luftmensch (Yiddish)
There are several Yiddish words to describe social misfits. This one is for an impractical dreamer with no business sense. Literally, air person.

5. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
You know that 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? This is the word for it.

6. Cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish)
A word that would aptly describe the prevailing fashion trend among American men under
40, it means one who wears the shirt tail out of his trousers.

7. Pana Po o (Hawaiian)
"Mnn, now where did I leave those keys?" he asked, pana po o'ing. It means to scratch
your head in order to help you remember something you've forgotten.

8. Gumasservi (Turkish)
Meteorologists can be poets in Turkey with words like this. It means moonlight shining
on water.

9. Vybafnout (Czech)
A word tailor-made for annoying older brothers--it means to jump out and say boo.

10. Mencolek (Indonesian)
You know that old trick where you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from
behind to fool them? The Indonesians have this word for it.

11. Famiti (Samoan)
To make a squeaking sound by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a
dog or child.

12. Glas wen (Welsh)
A smile that is insincere or mocking. Literally, a blue smile.

13. Bakku-shan (Japanese)
The experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front.

14. Boketto (Japanese)
The Japanese respect so much of the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking that they give it a name.

15. Kummerspeek (German)
Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.
to give it a name.

Bakku-shan (No. 13) brought to mind that perhaps we need an English word for a guy with a fine behind who turns around and is actually U-G-L-Y. Or maybe a word for the ugly guy who just oozes appeal anyway. (My older son once told me that he'd figured out that men who appealed to me had "knowing eyes." I don't know exactly what that means. Maybe we need a word for "knowing eyes.") What about you? Can you think of an event or description that doesn't have an English word but needs one?

Note: Many thanks to those of you who communicated concern and best wishes for my mother. She's eighty-five, tiny, and fragile. The heart attack, broken hip, and cracked wrist took a lot out of her, and I spent almost two weeks at the hospital round the clock. She is, however, improving, and has just been moved to rehab. Thanks again.

No contest question today.

Until we meet again. . .take care of YOU.


  1. Good one, Fran. I heard Donna Leon, who lives in and writes mysteries set in Venice, say the Italians call a woman with an extreme facelift a "superliftata." As for Yiddish, when I was a kid, my parents and their friends would tell jokes in English, but the punchline was always in Yiddish. When the grownups howled with laughter and the kids clamored, "What does it mean?" they'd invariably say, "It's untranslatable!"

  2. Thanks for the words! And thanks for the good words about your Mom!

  3. What a brilliant list!

    I don't know of any word in French for 'shallow' referring to depth. Usually they say 'not deep'.

    Fran, I know you've been spending day and night at the hospital. I'm glad to hear your mother's improving. We think of you. Remember the last line of your columns: Take care of YOU!

  4. Best regards to your mother, Fran--it's great to hear that she's doing better. (My mom's 85 as well.)

    I loved your list!! By the way, I actively practice boketto AND cotisuelto.

  5. Bakku-shan (No. 13) made me think of the old Cathy cartoons where remarks about a girl being chubby are made by guys who are chubby.

    Me, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for a luftmensch bokettoing.

  6. Thanks for your kind words and kind thoughts. I enjoyed every one of your comments and am still trying to think up some words we need in English.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>