Writer and word explorer Andrew Taylor is the author of The Greeks Had a Word For It. Exclusively for Think Smarter, Andrew shares some of his favourite words from around the world, for when English doesn’t quite cut it…
Go on, think of a word for it.
The clock is ticking, and time is running out. You may be a woman anxious to have children who is only too aware that human biology imposes its own inexorable time limits, or an elite athlete aware that your years at the top are numbered. Or perhaps you’re simply standing in a queue at the airport, waiting for security clearance, and every time you look up at the departure board, more precious minutes have slipped away.
We’ve all experienced that gradual increase in anxiety, from a vague unease as we become aware that time might be an issue, through the various stages of increasing disquiet, to outright panic as the final seconds slip away. But there’s no word that describes it adequately.
Not in English, anyway – but the Germans, with their talent for creating new words by sticking old ones together, have torschlusspanik (TOR-shluss-pan-ik). Literally, it’s gate-closing panic, which captures perfectly the sense of the airport departure gate slamming shut in your face.
And that’s just one of scores of feelings that foreign languages manage better than our own. Experts calculate that English has between 500,000 words and just over two million, demanding on how you count them – but it’s the ones that aren’t there that are fascinating.
Try the Danish word forsytningsangst (for-SOO’ning-sangst) – a bit like torschlusspanik, but in this case relating to food, provisions, or supplies, rather than time. It’s another compound word, this time bringing together the words for worry and supply, and it suggests a need for security, for knowing that you won’t run out and be left without the things you need, rather than the mounting panic of the German word.
But once again, it’s a feeling we recognise and a word that we lack.
Sometimes, it’s just a shade of meaning that differs between two languages. We may talk about a reunion when two people who have not seen each other for a long time meet again – but the French word retrouvailles (RUH-troo-vie-uh), which means literally a finding-again, has more emotion, more tenderness, bound up with it. It’s often applied to lovers, of course – there’s a sense that something that was precious has been lost, and looked for, and has now been found again. Perhaps it’s just that the English are more stiff and starchy and buttoned up – but the word reunion sounds somehow much more cold and formal.
To go further afield, the Japanese have a word, wabi (WAH-bee) that describes the simple beauty of a rustic-style artwork or piece of pottery. It may lack classical symmetry, but its elegance, its fitness for purpose, mark it out as a serious work of art. It’s often used along with (SAH-bee), which focuses on the object’s real or apparent age, and the minor chips, surface crazing or colour-changes that it has assimilated. Put the two words together – wabi-sabi – and you have an appreciation of the beauty that can lie in imperfection, and a delicate sense of fragility and impermanence. It’s a whole system of aesthetic philosophy bound up in a single two-word phrase.
In the Tagalog language of the Philippines, the word gigil (GHEE-guhl or JEE-juhl) covers those moments when a mother (it usually is a mother) finds her baby’s cheek so delicious that she just has to pinch or squeeze it. Other people may have a similar reaction to the pictures of cats and puppies that seem to infest the internet – or, more embarrassingly, elderly aunts may feel the same about the cheeks of their young teenage relations.
The English word cute gives a very faint echo of what the word means, but without any of the sense of inexpressible, shivering, sentimental delight that simply has to be expressed physically. But there is another side to gigil as well. Just occasionally, what you see may be so cute and cheeky that what you really want to do is give it a slap – and gigil applies to those moments as well. Definitely one for all those cat and puppy pictures!
Andrew Taylor is author of The Greeks Had a Word For It (Bantam Press).