List: Untranslation.

“A foot brushes your ankle on a peak-hour bus
Someone’s hand on the small of your back as they pass
A shopkeeper’s fingers while handing you change
Can lightly brush yours without feeling too strange.

But why I felt so alive I can’t quite determine
There could be a word to explain it in German…”

Elbows, Darren Hanlon.

I feel I’m forever hearing that non-English languages are much better at describing profoundly complex, delicately nuanced concepts with simple, single words and phrases.

The example that comes to mind is the Japanese phrase mono no aware, which I first heard described as “the bittersweet impermanence of all things, as epitomised by the beautifully brief cherry-blossom season”.*

{ from Wordstuck, which you should definitely be following }

Such an astonishingly complex description of a profoundly human condition. To encapsulate so much meaning in six syllables is a truly adept feat of human language. In a word, deft.

The internet, often visually, alerts me to other lovely and/or gigglesome examples:


{ by Maptia, via amandaonwriting.tumblr.com }


{ vague and nebulous }


{ via weheartit }





{ more from Wordstuck }

Not-so-plain English

The thing is, English is also riddled with magical words that somehow pinpoint un-pin-downable ideas. One need only read one of Mark Forsyth’s books (or just his blog, actually) to realise that. If you’ve thought “there should be a word for that” it’s quite likely there is a word in English for it. But it’s also quite likely that word has fallen into disuse — from lack of utility, or despite its seemingly timeless utility.

This, of course, is my cue to again poke you in the ribs and encourage a reading (or rereading) of Reading the OED. Having done so, I’d include apricity (the pleasant warmth of the sun in winter) in my active vocabulary for at least half of the year if it was fashionable to do so.** Living in any city, you would think there are plenty of occasions to use peristeronic (adj., suggestive of pigeons), solivagant (n., one who wanders about alone) and fornale (v., to spend all one’s money before it has been earned). But nobody does. And then we muse wistfully about the rambling-cottage-garden–like magnanimity of other languages, when it seems we’ve wilfully whittled our own language into something simpler and less eloquent, in some sort of 1984-ish search for efficiency.

Humbly untranslatable

Where things really get interesting is at the subtler, simpler level — the different between different varieties of regular, everyday English. On her blog Separated By A Common Language, M. Lynne Murphy has a semi-regular (annual) summary of “untranslatables”: UK English words that have no apparent natural analogue in US English — and vice versa. Many aren’t even as endemic as slang — think punter (UK) and trailer trash (US) rather than ma’m and rad.

The most fascinating realisation, as an Australian proofreader: although AU English often seems terribly akin to UK English while sharing traits that some would call “super American”, most of these untranslatables seem completely native to me — and I’m astounded to think that any native English speaker wouldn’t feel the same. Only Americans eyeball things rather than measuring them accurately? Americans don’t fancy other people in the romantic sense?

Then again, most of the 2012 untranslatables I’d never heard of at all (crunchy-earthy? GUBBINS?) so perhaps I just need to get out more. Who’d like to sponsor my extended transatlantic holida– …erm, research trip?*** I might have a touch of the old wanderlust. Itchy feet. Fernweh.

*Japanese also gives us kintsukuroi:
tumblr_mvhzylzYaE1qfvq9bo1_500
My mother is a potter, and as a little girl I was quite enamoured with those seemingly organic veins of gold winding through otherwise stony ceramics.

**Okay, so I do anyway.

***I might have said vacati– here, to the same effect. But Australia favours the British option here, and so must I.

An A–Z of Unusual Words.

I have noticed that other people are also noticing — and illustrating — the obscure, almost-forgotten corners of our language. Wallflower words, if you will. So rather than wax lyrical I’ll just share visuals, from The Project Twins A–Z of Unusual Words.

These images explore the meaning behind the words, which are sometimes even more strange or unusual. This project explores the synthesis between form and content, and words and images with the aim of producing work that is both visually interesting and informative.

Dactylion: An anatomical landmark located at the tip of the middle finger…Dactylion.jpg
(Relevant to those who practise yoga.)

Montivagant: Wandering over hills and mountains…
Montivagant.jpg
(Relevant to those afflicted with bucolic wanderlust.)

Pogonotrophy: The act of cultivating, or growing and grooming, a moustache, beard, sideburns or other facial hair…
Pogonotrophy.jpg
(Relevant in this charitably hairy month.)

Vernalagnia: A romantic mood brought on by Spring…
Vernalagnia.jpg
(Seasonally relevant, depending on your hemisphere.)

PS. The Project Twins also did a completely charming piece — “Do You Want To Know A Secret?” — for the completely charming Illustrated Beatles collection.

#$*&^! = Grawlix

>> A word for that: Grawlix

Until its OED entry is solemnized, we’ll have to settle for this definition on Wiktionary: “grawlixn. A string of typographical symbols used (especially in comic strips) to represent an obscenity or swear word.” I don’t think I’ll ever look at a character set quite the same way again.

%^&*@ing glorious!

Read the whole thing at Hoefler & Frere-Jones (via @GrammarMonkeys and @mental_floss)

Better than alphagetti*: edible gelatin typography

{ via Colossal }

Current distraction: wondering about the mouthfeel. Chewy? Sticky? Sans-serifs-y? Alphagetti?*

(Subsequent distraction: the curious difference between American “jelly”, which is Australian “jam”, and Australian “jelly”, which is American “jello”.)

 

*If it’s named after what it clearly IS named after, shouldn’t there be an H after that G?

The Oxford comma: dead at the hands of serial killers

I give a #%*^ about the Oxford comma.  I’m known for giving a #%*^ about the Oxford comma. But sadly, this sudden palaver over its threatened extinction (at the hands of its eponymous university, no less) is just a bureaucratic nail in an already-long-buried coffin. As a proofreader in Australia, I must (at least during working hours) adhere to the ‘current trends’ in Australian writing style, and that means NO SERIAL COMMAS EVER (except if absolutely needed for the sake of clarity, which isn’t any fun at all).

So as far as I’m (professionally) concerned, the Oxford comma has already been eradicated, or is at least seriously endangered, teetering on the brink of extinction. It lingers only as a ghost, destroyed by a gradual succession of serial killers*: style guides in ruthless pursuit of minimalist punctuation.

R, I, P.

Over at Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams has already said almost everything else I would say on the topic. Most importantly, she a) clarifies the extent to which Oxford University is eliminating its eponymous comma (that is, no more than most institutions already have); and b) embedded the obvious Vampire Weekend video clip.

Now, two things about this video clip: Firstly, its total number of hits must have jumped phenomenally in the past 24 hours. Secondly, IT WAS DIRECTED BY THE WONDERFUL RICHARD AYOADE (of The IT Crowd, of course). And if that isn’t a joyful note on which to end a sombre post, I don’t know what is.

*Yes, I went there.