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.

Wallflower Words: Koan (n.)

Wallflower Words is a series of Proof (v.) posts dedicated to beautiful but under-appreciated and seldom-encountered words. Those that are never invited to dance at the parlance party; those that deserve more exposure than is currently afforded by contemporary trends in popular English. This is their turn on the dancefloor.

The Word: Koan (n.)

Huh? In Zen Buddhist theory and study, a koan is a paradox proposed for the purpose of confounding the mind into an unthinking stupor, whereupon the stupefied mind becomes so stupefied as to enter a whole new level of conscious, awakened thought.

As in?


{ via Yahoo Answers }


And? Well, at 3.28 on a Tuesday afternoon we could all do with more mental stimulation, lest we be trapped forever in The Long, Dark Tea-Time of The Soul.

We might also like to remember that there is a moral to every story.

We might ALSO like to remember that animated introspective thought might never produce a finite answer.

And I need a name for that process of suddenly realising the answer to 14-down in the cryptic crossword a full 5 hours after I began puzzling over the clue.

See also:

Wallflower Words: Liminal (adj.)
Wallflower Words: Saturnine (a./ n.)
Wallflower Words: Quantise (v.)
Wallflower Words: Vitriol (n.)

Wallflower Words: Vitriol (n.)

Wallflower Words is a series of Proof (v.) posts dedicated to beautiful but under-appreciated and seldom-encountered words. Those that are never invited to dance at the parlance party; those that deserve more exposure than is currently afforded by contemporary trends in popular English. This is their turn on the dancefloor.

The Word: Vitriol (n.)

Huh? Originally, referred to sulphates of metals in general (iron vitriol, copper vitriol, sulphur vitriol &c.). Subsequently, ‘vitriol’ became a specifically synonymous term for sulphuric acid (aka. Oil of Vitriol). Hence, ‘vitriol’ in its currently popular role, as an apt reference to bitterly abusive language or vituperation: nothing short of spitting, spiteful, acerbic, acidic ire.

As in? Give it a little bit of vitriol!


And? ‘Vitriolic’ has a nice Sherlockian ring to it. AND it is formed naturally in the upper atmospheres of Venus and Europa, which I consider to be a particularly cool triviality. AND, Bluejuice played at Big Day Out on the 23rd! AND they were awesome. As in… they were all dressed like Quentin Tarantino’s The Bride! (aka. Beatrix Kiddo; aka. Black Mamba; aka. Mommy)


{ via Entertainment Weekly }

Now THERE’S a woman with vitriol!

See also:

Wallflower Words: Liminal (adj.)
Wallflower Words: Saturnine (a./ n.)
Wallflower Words: Quantise (v.)

Wallflower Words: Quantise (v.)

Wallflower Words is a series of Proof (v.) posts dedicated to beautiful but under-appreciated and seldom-encountered words. Those that are never invited to dance at the parlance party; those that deserve more exposure than is currently afforded by contemporary trends in popular English. This is their turn on the dancefloor.


The Word: Quantise (v.)

[or Quantize (v.), depending on your hemisphere]


Huh? To divide into discrete units or into the smallest possible component parts; to express in terms of quanta.

As in? Solace, quantised. Not really. More like “Could you kindly quantise how many times you have rewatched Quantum of Solace?”. [I could not]. Or “Please quantise the expression on your face while listening to The xx on new birthday earphones”.


Again, I shurely could not.

And? Well, it just sounds cooler than ‘quantify’, despite being more or less synonymous. Note to self: preference ‘quantise’ whenever possible. Especially when describing nerdy, spacey, technobabble [<alt="cool">]stuff.


See also:

Wallflower Words: Liminal (adj.)
Wallflower Words: Saturnine (a./ n.)

Wallflower Words: Saturnine (a./n.)

Wallflower Words is a series of Proof (v.) posts dedicated to beautiful but under-appreciated and seldom-encountered words. Those that are never invited to dance at the parlance party; those that deserve more exposure than is currently afforded by contemporary trends in popular English. This is their turn on the dancefloor.

The Word: Saturnine (a./n.)

Huh? Influenced by Saturn. Contaminated with lead [the effect of lead poisoning may also known as Saturnia] and therefore leaden. Hence the quality of having a heavy, slow, dull, sullen and depressed demeanour.

As in? January Astrology.  Saturn takes 29.5 YEARS to orbit the sun, as opposed to our 365 DAYS. Saturn is the ruling planet of Capricorn (implying that we January babies are goatishly stubborn).

“Astrologically, Saturn is associated with the principles of limitation, restrictions, boundaries, practicality and reality, crystallizing and structures… Saturn is also considered to represent the part of a person concerned with long-term planning… According to the first-century poet Manilius, Saturn is sad, morose, and cold and is the greater malefic… Saturn symbolized processes and things which were dry and extremely cold, and, therefore, inimical to life. It governed the melancholic humor… Saturn being the planet of mortality, and hence, why the Grim Reaper carries a scythe).”

Wikipedia

Also: In bodily (sort of) form, Saturnine is The Guardian of the Road of Lost Souls in the Marvel Universe (which exists within THIS universe of course, but which anyone who has had more than a cursory glance can tell you, occupies a practically endless interlinking Wikipedia Universe of its own). Very morose; very Grim Reaper; very apt.

And? Planetary adjectives are all the rage. Happy people are commonly described as jovial, and mad ones as lunatic. The changeable are mercurial; and anything alien is either martian or at the very least, unearthly. So I say that ‘saturnine’, dark and sluggish beast that it is, deserves a better linguistic workout.

See also: Wallflower Words: Liminal (adj.)

RELATED POSTS:
–  Lunar Loveliness
The Language of Deep Space

Wallflower Words: Liminal (adj.)

Wallflower Words is a series of Proof (v.) posts dedicated to beautiful but under-appreciated and seldom-encountered words. Those that are never invited to dance at the parlance party; those that deserve more exposure than is currently afforded by contemporary trends in popular English. This is their turn on the dancefloor.

The Word: Liminal (adj.)


Huh? Of or pertaining to a ‘limen’ or threshold.

As in? The ‘rich as plumcake’ Wood Between The Worlds, that magical in-between place in The Magician’s Nephew (in CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, of course).

“The Wood Between The Worlds shares some traits with other liminal spaces, way stations and thresholds, like the bardo of Tibetan Buddhism, or the door-lined hallway that Alice tries so hard to get out of in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But unlike other “between” places in myth and fiction, the Wood is both empty and full. It is a unitary movement, containing everything, the pause before a story is told, in which nothing has happened, and so anything might… On a less abstract level, the Wood is also a library. For someone like Lewis, who lived so much through his reading, each book was potentially a portal to another world.”

– Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (which I have finally finished reading, and feel thoroughly nourished by).


{ via The Crystalline Entity }

And?Subliminal‘  — being “below the threshold of conscious perception”— is a relatively common word. As is (though to a somewhat lesser extent) ‘superliminal‘ — being above said threshold, or faster than the speed of light.  But somehow the root ‘liminal’ has fallen out of common parlance. How terribly unreasonable.

[NB. This reminds me of that most existential of questions in 10 Things I Hate About You: “Q: I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be… whelmed?” “A: I think you can in Europe?”… Except that ‘liminal’ is an actual word, whereas ‘whelmed’ is, well, not really, unless you’re talking in the nautical sense.]