In a word: book collects world's pithiest sayings

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The Independent Culture

Tsonga speakers who have had a fruitless day's labour know it simply as walkatia. For Anglophones, it is the act of throwing down a tool in disgust. Someone fluent in Bakweri might soothe his walkatia by looking at a womba – the smile of a sleeping child. But all would probably shy at a Frenchman's offer of a spot of chapponage – the act of a sliding a finger into a chicken's backside to see if it is laying an egg.

The ability of foreign languages to reach levels of semantic precision that English cannot is laid bare in a new book that compiles single-word phrases conveying complex notions – from comparing yams to walking on warm sand – for which the tongue of William Shakespeare and James Joyce has no equivalent.

While a Portuguese speaker can elicit a chorus of tuts of disapproval by muttering pesamenteiro in the direction of a mourner, the verbose Anglophone must explain the individual is someone who habitually attends funerals under the guise of wishing to offer condolences when they are just there for the free food and drink.

The compendium, Toujours Tingo, is the second work of linguistic serendipity by Adam Jacot de Boinod, who cut his teeth as a seeker of obscure knowledge as a researcher on Stephen Fry's high-brow BBC2 quiz show QI. His first book, The Meaning of Tingo, which derives its title from a word in the Pacuense language of Easter Island conveying the practice of borrowing objects one at a time from a neighbour until nothing is left, sold 50,000 hardback copies in Britain when it was published in 2005.

De Boinod said: "It all started when I came across an Albanian dictionary and found it had 27 separate words for eyebrow. It has since developed from a curiosity into a passion. These are words that have often been forgotten even in their own languages so you get a sense of unearthing information which has been preserved only in old dictionaries. It is also proof of the sheer diversity of language. We might say 'ow' when we feel a sudden pain but the same feeling is conveyed by different sounds the world over. That difference should be celebrated."

The author spent the past 18 months trawling the pages of dictionaries to unearth his list of treasures. Nakhur, meaning a camel that will only give milk once its nostrils have been tickled, was found in a Farsi dictionary compiled by a Victorian lexicographer.

The Ndonga tribe of Namibia use oka-shete for the phenomenon of being unable to urinate due to eating frogs before the rainy season while Malay speakers calculate the passage of time in pisan zapras – the period needed to eat a banana.

The Japanese are singled out for the brevity with which they explain certain types of eccentric behaviour. Okuri-okami – a see-you-home-wolf – is used for a man who feigns gentlemanly conduct by offering to walk a girl home only to force himself upon her once he gets to the door, while a nitto-onna is a career woman so dedicated to her job that she only wears knitted tops because she has no time to iron shirts.

But the prize for cramming the most meaning into a short collection of vowels of consonants must go to Hindi. Anyone finding themselves called kanjus-makkhichus should hang their head in shame for they are considered so miserly that if a fly were to fall into their cup of tea, they would fish it out and suck it dry before throwing it away.

Are you a poyipoyi or a kakobijin?

Okuri-okami (Japanese)

A man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to molest her once he gets in the door. (literally, 'a see-you-home wolf').

Kaelling (Danish)

A woman who stands on the steps of her house yelling obscenities at her kids.

Belochnik (Russian)

A thief who specialises in stealing linen off clothes lines.

Dii-koyna (Ndebele of Southern Africa)

To destroy one's own property in ange.

Womba (Bakweri, Cameroon)

The smiling in sleep by children.

Pelinti (Buli, Ghana)

To move very hot food around inside one's mouth in order to avoid too close a contact.

Mbwandira (Chichewa, Malawi)

The practice of catching a small animal like a bird or mouse by pouncing on top of it.

Ippaiyoku (Japanese)

Women with every garment made by the same designer.

Tlazolmiquiztli (Aztec)

The stench which rises from adulterers.

Walakatia (Tsonga, South Africa)

To fling down in disgust, as a hunter does with spears when returning empty-handed.

Mmbwe (Venda, South Africa)

A round pebble taken from a crocodile's stomach and swallowed by a chief.

Biritululo (Kiriwani, Papua New Guinea)

To compare yams to settle a dispute.

Poronkusema (Finnish)

The distance equal to how far a reindeer can travel without taking a comfort break.

Poyipoyi (Tsonga, South Africa)

A person who talks at length but does not make sense.

Kanjus makkhichus (Hindi)

A person so miserly that if a fly falls into his cup of tea, he'll fish it out and suck it dry before throwing it away.

Hanyauku (Rukwangali, Namibia)

To walk on tiptoe on warm sand.

Dynke (Norwegian)

The act of dunking somebody's face in snow.

Pikikiwepogosi (Obijway, North America)

Tasting of an animal that was tired out before it was killed.

Chaponner (Gallo, France)

To stick a finger up a chicken's bottom to see if it is laying an egg.

Kakobijin (Japanese)

A woman who talks incessantly about how she would have been thought of as a stunner if she had lived in a different era when men's tastes were different.

Jera (Indonesian)

So scared by a past experience that one never wants to do it again.