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Jan 28, 2013
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There's a word for it

This week's words

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with Anu Garg

In a forwarded email I came across an article with the title: 14 wonderful words with no English equivalent. The article lists words from various languages and their meanings, for example:

Rhwe (Tsonga, South Africa) : to sleep on the floor without a mat, while drunk and naked.

I have a problem with articles like this, listing unusual words in other languages. They are almost always wrong. It's not efficient for a language to have a specific word for such a highly specialized concept as "to sleep on the floor without a mat, while drunk and naked". You mean there's a separate word in that language for "to sleep on the floor with a mat, while drunk and naked"? I don't speak the Tsonga language mentioned in the article, but I'm certain that the meaning given is not the right one.

I believe this is what happens: a writer of such articles comes across a word and takes the whole context as the meaning of the word. Imagine this writer coming across the sentence: "Jane was not expecting a promotion but when she learned that she had been appointed to the VP position, she was chuffed." Now our writer goes on to write a breathless article:

Did you know English has a word chuffed which is used to describe someone who is delighted to receive something unexpected.

Were that writer especially ambitious, perhaps the definition given would have been:

chuffed: a word in English to describe someone who is delighted to receive an unexpected promotion.

All this is not to say that there aren't words in other languages we don't have in English. As an example, many languages have specific words to describe even remote relations. Hindi has a specific word to describe one's son's or daughter's father-in-law (samdhi) and a word for his wife (samdhin).

Even English has words that we believe do not exist because they are not well-known. This week we'll bring you five such words from the attic of the English language.



noun: The day after tomorrow.
adjective: Of or relating to the day after tomorrow.

From over (above) + morrow (tomorrow), from Old English morgen (morning). Earliest documented use: 1535. Also see hodiernal (relating to today), hesternal (relating to yesterday), and nudiustertian (relating to the day before yesterday).

"We can go not overmorrow, but on Thursday."
The Parliamentary Debates; H.M. Stationery Office; 1925.

The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it. -Jean-Paul Sartre, writer and philosopher (1905-1980)

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