Learning a foreign language is, of course, the surest and fastest track to becoming familiar with another culture. But the words themselves offer hundreds of revealing clues to the preoccupations of that culture. Everyone knows that Inuit-speaking races can call on 30-odd words for snow. Adam Jacot de Boinod first became entranced by language when he discovered 27 words for "moustache" in an Albanian dictionary - and another 27 for "eyebrows". A world of bushy machismo and stolid dignity sprang to life before his eyes. He began hanging out in second-hand bookshops, looking for foreign dictionaries and the tiny revelations contained therein. He made lists of his favourite "words with no equivalent in the English language" - like, say, tsuji-giri, a Japanese word from samurai days meaning, "to try out a new sword on a passer-by" (thanks a bunch, Toshiro), or the stoic German term Torschlusspanik, meaning "the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older".
His book is destined to be the Eats, Shoots & Leaves of the autumn. Where else could you discover the gradations of bowing in Japan, from eshaku (a slight bow of about 15 degrees) to pekopeko, "bowing one's head repeatedly in a fawning or grovelling manner"? Or find that there are 18 words for "you" in Vietnamese, depending on whether you're addressing one person or several, young or old, formally or informally? Or learn that the French invented the word ordinateur in order not to have to say "computer", because con is slang for vagina and pute slang for whore, the combination of which is literally unspeakable in haunts of the chivalrous.
Most intriguing of all, however, are the words whose meanings seem ludicrously over-precise - like the Persian word nakhur which means "a camel that won't give milk until her nostrils have been tickled", or the meaning of tingo itself.
These are more than funny foreign vocabularies; they are tiny windows into the way other people live, and the obsessions that drive them. We may be amused by their lexicon of everyday words - but we can be certain they'd be equally amused by our vocabulary of "multi-tasking" and "sound-bite" and "over-sharing". By our unguarded linguistic displays shall we be known.
'Agobilles' to 'zhengrong' and lots in between
MATA EGO Rapa Nui, Easter Island
Eyes that reveal that someone has been crying.
To flick someone with the middle finger on the ear.
A tuft of hair left to grow on top of an otherwise bald head.
To search and pick up lice from one's own hair, usually when in bed at night.
PANA PO'O Hawaiian
To scratch your head in order to help you to remember something you've forgotten.
NGAOBERA Pascuense, Easter Island
A slight inflammation of the throat caused by screaming too much.
O KA LA NOKONOKO Hawaiian
A day spent in nervous anticipation of a coughing spell.
ANGUSHTI ZA'ID Russian
Someone with six fingers.
PAPAKATA Cook Islands Maori
To have one leg shorter than the other.
Skin peeling or falling off after either sunburn or heavy drinking.
KARELU Tulu Indian
The mark left on the skin by wearing anything tight.
LOVE AND BEAUTY
Looking beautiful after having a disease.
To improve one's looks by plastic surgery.
A girl who looks as though she might be pretty when seen from behind, but isn't when seen from the front.
MAMIHLAPINATAPEI Fuengian language, Chile
A shared look of longing between parties who are both interested yet neither is willing to make the first move.
A man who seizes any chance of being in close physical contact with a woman.
Allowing a lover access to one's bed, under the covers, for a chit-chat.
Wallowing, tumbling or rolling from side to side as lovers do.
NARACHASTRA PRAYOGA Sanskrit
Men who worship their own sexual organs.
The hysterical belief that one's penis is shrinking into one's body.
Male masturbation (literally "a hundred rubs"). "Shiko shiko manzuri" is the female version (literally "ten thousand rubs").
SACANAGEM Brazilian Portuguese
Openly seeking sexual pleasure with one or more partners other than one's primary partner during Mardi Gras.
Feigned anger of a mistress.
An officer who keeps the flies off the sleeping king by waving a feather brush.
A dealer in stolen cats.
BUZ-BAZ Ancient Persian
A showman who makes a goat and monkey dance together.
Someone who co-ordinates a group of clappers.
An assistant lighthouse keeper.
The chief's masseur, whose duty it was to take care of his spittle and excrement.
To use company time and resources for one's own purposes.
PAUKIKAPE Ancient Greek
The collar worn by slaves while grinding corn, in order to stop them eating it.
QIANG JINGTOU Chinese
The fight by a cameraman to get a better vantage point.
GRILAGEM Brazilian Portuguese
The practice of putting a live cricket into a box of newly faked documents, until the insect's excrement makes the paper look convincingly old.
Extorting payment from someone by sitting at their front door and staying there without food, threatening violence, until you get paid.
A man with a few shares in several companies who extorts money by threatening to come to the shareholders' meetings and cause trouble.
A person who leaves a restaurant without paying.
Someone who spends time, but not money, at a café.
TINGO Pascuense language, Easter Island
Borrowing things from a friend's house, one by one, until he has nothing left.
A charm used by burglars to make people fall asleep.
A burglar's tools.
A theft carried out on a bus or train, from which the perpetrator descends as quickly as possible.
To execute by pressing into mud.
WAR NAM NIHADAN Persian
To murder somebody, bury their body, then grow some flowers over the grave in order to conceal it.
A group of prison guards who specialise in beating up inmates.
To break into jail in order to rescue a prisoner.
Uncontrollable habit of saying embarrassing things.
Muttering to oneself.
Someone who speaks rapidly, hiding their meaning from one person while communicating it to another.
YUYURUNGUL Yindiny, Australia
The noise of a snake sliding through grass.
The whistling and pattering of rain or wind.
GULUGULU Tulu, India
The sound of a pitcher filling with water.
CALACALA Tulu, India
The action of children wading through water as they play.
The ringing of a doorbell.
The quiet, smooth sound of somebody farting but not very loudly.
The suppressed giggling and tittering of a group of women.
The sound of sand driven by the wind.
To make a squeaking noise by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or a child.
The sound made by a boiling kettle.
The sound of dry leaves or twigs being trodden underfoot.
The remnants of sound that stay in the ears of the hearer
Extracted from 'The Meaning of Tingo' by Adam Jacot de Boinod, published by Penguin Press (www.penguin.co.uk) at £10. ©Adam Jacot de Boinod, 2005. To order 'The Meaning of Tingo' for the special price of £9 (with free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content