“The Germans are a cruel race,” Blackadder once observed. “Their operas last for six hours and they have no word for ‘fluffy’.” Actually, they do – flockig – but what about other peoples and languages? What conspicuous and startling absences remain in the dictionary?
I knew that the French, with their strict linguistic ways, had some very surprising gaps. It is impossible to say in French that anything is “shallow” – there’s no word for it, and you have to say that a river is peu profond. One thing I would never have guessed, however, is that it has, until now, been impossible to say “French kiss” in correct French.
We have quite a good range of terms for kisses in English – smack, smooch, snog, butterfly kiss, peck, osculation (in technical mood). Is “mwah” now a noun or verb? “I gave him a great big mwah.” Surely. There are a few in French – embrasser, bécoter, biser, baiser (sometimes – use this one with care). And now Le Petit Robert has decided to include the wonderful word galocher for what English soldiers, returning from the great war, called a French Kiss. It has something to do with ice skates – either the slithery motion, or possibly the noise of pulling damp feet out, I expect.
Languages are haphazard things which build up to cover eventualities, and sometimes pass over quite important facts without finding a name for it. Byron says in 'Don Juan' that we might not have a word for longueurs in English, but we have the thing in abundance. It is surprising that we haven’t developed a word for Schadenfreude, so general is the English tendency to enjoy somebody else’s discomfiture.
These gaps have produced a series of amusing but perhaps not very reliable books by Adam Jacot de Boinod called The Meaning of Tingo, identifying things which other languages find it necessary to name. Some of these are obviously amusing coinages or eccentric idioms in the original language, or hardly likely to have much common use beyond the dictionary – the 27 names for different sorts of moustache in Albanian, for instance. But there certainly are some areas of existence that individual languages find it surprisingly necessary to go into. Italian has the lovely word nipotame, meaning “a crowd of nephews and nieces” – something probably more common in the Catholic past than now. Bengali is very intricate in its names for family relations, always specifying whether an aunt is on the mother’s or the father’s side, whether a sister is older or younger than the speaker. It must seem like a strange gap to many learners of English that the language doesn’t distinguish between the brother of your spouse and your spouse’s husband – both are just “brother-in-law”, an inadequate sort of qualification of brother in the first place. Georgians must wonder why English has to say “the day after tomorrow”, and not, like sensible people, have a single word for it.
It’s possible that somewhere, tucked away in technical vocabulary or in slang, are words for many of these phenomena – a favourite example of Mr Jacot de Boinod is the Japanese word bakku-shan, which is supposed to mean “a woman attractive from behind, but not from the front”. I’m sure an English dialect has a vivid idiom for that one, somewhere, just as Le Petit Robert has not just now invented the word galocher for something French people have been doing to each other for centuries. They have simply given some recognition to it.
More appealing are those features of foreign languages which have structural implications, and which display quite a different method of looking at the world. Cherokee has some remarkably insulting verb forms which are exclusive in meaning – in other words, you can say “we – but not you – are invited” in Cherokee, specifically leaving out the person you’re talking to. How much social embarrassment this would save. The problem of saying to a hanger-on “Actually, John has invited us to dinner”, only to find that your interlocutor thought you meant him as well – that would never arise in Cherokee. You would have to say: “John has invited us, but not you, to dinner.”
In the meantime, I congratulate the French on their new addition, and look forward to trying it out at the first opportunity. Galochez-moi, monsieur.
Morgan’s not a morning person
Morgan Freeman signed up to do a publicity tour and a series of interviews with his co-star Michael Caine to promote a bank-heist/magic tricks movie. In the middle of a television interview with Seattle’s Q13 Fox News’s This Morning, it all got too utterly much for the laid-back Mr Freeman. Perhaps lulled by the gripping question to his colleague, “Michael, you have a bit of a history in the recent past in magic-based movies,” Mr Freeman let his eyelids fall; his head began to droop; he showed every sign of falling asleep.
He subsequently remarked, amusingly, that he was testing the new Google Eyelids program. But if he were to have fallen asleep, who could blame him? You start out as an actor, full of idealism, dreaming of playing Rosmersholm on Broadway. But before you know, it you are being paid millions to pull faces in front of green screens, and, still worse, listen to journalist after journalist say with every appearance of sincerity and purpose: “Michael, you have a bit of a history in the recent past in magic-based movies.” You can either say: “Oh, for Christ’s sake.” You could ask the journalist if he learnt the English language recently. You can just choose to fall asleep. Or you can smile and play the game, and pretend to answer the question seriously. I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often.