Thursday, October 29, 2009

Work in Progress: "There's a Word for It"

While doing some research (okay, actually while hoping for magical inspiration to strike), I skimmed through a few sections of the book They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases by Howard Rheingold.

The premise of the book is simple: it’s a list of foreign words that describe—precisely, exactly, eloquently—moments or things for which there is no English equivalent. Think of that old saying about the Inuit having more than 100 different words for snow, and you get the picture.

I’m not sure I found the magical inspiration I was seeking (though I did find some Polish words that I may be able to use), but it was a fun detour and, again, a reminder that writing should focus on the exactness of things. Here are a few good examples:

mbuki-mvuki (Bantu)
To shuck off clothes in order to dance [verb]
“…It can be assumed that the Bantu-speaking people of Africa must have a respectable heritage in the partying department, since they have a word, mbuki-mvuki, to describe the act of shucking off all clothing that hinders one’s party performance! At least one scholar believes that this Bantu term is the direct precursor for the name that migrated up the Mississippi along with the music it described—boogie woogie….”

ostranenie (Russian)
Art as defamiliarization; making familiar perceptions seem strange [verb]
“…While habitualization and familiarity are necessary psychological tools for creating an orderly world, they can grow into prisons that keep us from seeing the unusual, the marvelous, the might-have-been and ought-to-be. And then a van Gogh, a Picasso, a Stravinsky, a Joyce, or a Cervantes comes along and turns all our familiar ideas upside down….”

Wundersucht (German)
Passion for miracles [noun]

“…What good is a religion if it doesn’t offer a way out of the dilemma of existence? Morality in the face of temptation is hard to accept without some miraculous promise or threat. The paradox of existence seems to call out for the miraculous….”

It’s a fascinating book, and makes me wonder what English words might be included for non-English speakers? Do we have 100 different words for “traffic”?

(Here's the Amazon link if you'd like to read more or buy your own copy:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.