Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 8 December 2017

The Other News Round-Up: Can we have a word?

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the lesser-reported events from South Africa and elsewhere. This week: words of the year, begged, borrowed or stolen.

It’s an emotional time of year, I’ll give us all that. And it’s been an emotional year.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the world of words has popped up in the news recently. Words that have become more popular, words we don’t want to lose, words invented by Donald Trump. (Yes, in addition to “covfefe” – which, interestingly, is not corrected by my spell checker. I personally choose to believe that he’s not using “big-league” as an adverb, either, but has rather coined the rather expressive “bigly”. I think it suits him quite well, don’t you?)

Dictionary.com recently reported that “complicit” is its 2017 word of the year, with a major increase in the number of people looking it up. The first spike occurred in March, with a 10,000% rise in lookups after Saturday Night Live featured a spoof advert in which Scarlett Johansson played Ivanka Trump launching a new fragrance called Complicit – “for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t”.

Ivanka, bless her, said in an interview not long afterwards: “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

Maybe she, too, has benefited from Dictionary.com’s service.

On a brighter note, it turns out there are still some useful words we didn’t know we had in English. The BBC recently reported on Paul Anthony Jones’s new book The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities, in which he compiled 366 “forgotten words”. A particularly useful one, I thought, was “scurryfungle”, to describe the hasty cleaning you do in the seconds between when your visitor arrives at your gate and when they get to your door. Another was “frowst”, for the extra time spent in bed on a Sunday; and “shivviness”, for that itchy feeling when you are wearing new underwear. (I assume underwear was not what it is today when this word was born.) There’s a mountweazel – a fictitious entry added to a book to trap plagiarists. (Ha!) Or a Schnapsidee, an idea that seems very sound when drunk, but fails to stand up to scrutiny in the cold, sober light of day. So much easier to advise students now: Beware the Schnapsidee of a frowst, lest you be thwarted by a mountweazel.

There are, of course, a few that died out for understandable reason: for example, a beard-second, the unit measuring how much a beard grows in one second (apparently five nanometres). Like the light-year, it measures distance relative to time. Unlike the light-year, it seems a little unscientific. I can think of a number of men who – smugly measuring the so-called five o’clock shadow that in fact took two days to get there, next to their less fortunate brothers who keep the neighbourhood barber in business – might contest such a confident average.

I also wonder who actually sat down and measured this.

Some words in foreign (or local) languages simply do not translate, and it is a pity we do not have words for them in English. Some of these words are all-encompassing, carrying a fullness of feeling that would otherwise require multiple words. Gatvol, for example – a word so useful I cannot imagine the oversight that saw it being left out of any language.

But others are marvellously specific. There’s Naz, in Urdu, for the sense of security one feels when you know you are loved unconditionally. The Russian razbliuto, a word that should be legally required in every language to describe the residual feeling for someone you once loved. Wabi-sabi, in Japanese, describes finding beauty in the imperfections and impermanence around you. Then there’s Greng-jai in Thai, for that moment when someone goes out of their way to accommodate you, even if it causes them discomfort or inconvenience. Or its relative in Japanese, arigata-meiwaku, which is very precise indeed: when someone does you a “favour” you didn’t want in the first place, attempted to sidestep, failed to prevent, but nonetheless left you stuck with the unwelcome outcome, and you are now expected to show gratitude for the person’s efforts.

Then there’s pena ajena in Spanish, a twinge I had just this morning over Twitter’s response to #badderthanTaylor. It describes vicarious mortification for someone else’s embarrassing moment. A close cousin is the German Fremdschamen, for the shame one feels peripherally for a person who should be embarrassed, but somehow magically isn’t. Don’t we all know someone like that?

German, it must be said, is inimitable. Apart from the widely adopted Zeitgeist, Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude, there are other beauties that failed to catch on: Kummerspeck (literally “worry bacon”), for the weight one gains from comfort eating. Or Backpfeifengesicht, a face that’s begging for a snotklap (another indispensable SA term). Yiddish similarly delivers gems in buckets that have thankfully been loaned with abandon: chutzpah, klutz, kvetch, tchotchke, schlep, schmuck.

Our awkwardness would fill a dictionary by itself. Tartle is the Scots word for that second before you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t remember (is there a word for the stroke of genius when you say, “Well, go on, introduce yourselves!”?) That urge you have to squeeze or pinch something adorable? Filipinos call it gigil. (Not the same as the situation we call “harassment”.) And where Kummerspeck fails, the Georgian equivalent for festive overeating steps in: shemomedjamo, directly translated as “I accidentally ate the whole thing”. The French l’esprit de l’escalier (stairwell wit) describes that snappy answer you thought of just too late. (Alanis Morrissette would probably call this “ironic”. I prefer the French.)

Indonesians had the foresight to come up with a word to describe a joke so excruciatingly bad it’s almost good – jayus. Tsundoku, in Japanese, is buying a new book only to leave it unread, often with a pile of other unread new books (guilty as charged). Or the Italian “Culaccino” for the mark left on a table by a cold drink, which is so much more useful than “that little round, wet thingie that may or may not come out of the oak with a little furniture polish”.

Closer to home, Ghanaians saw the necessity of describing that unfortunate moment when you’ve bitten off food that is too hot and don’t quite know what to do with it once it’s in your mouth. That lolling one’s head about while making an uncomfortable yelping sound and trying not to spit everything out and run squealing from the table? It’s called pelinti.

South Africa, I have to say, hasn’t done badly in terms of adopting or coining useful words. It helps when you have 11 official languages at your disposal. The abovementioned gatvol is a must-have, as are kak and lekker (and the resultant commandment: don’t be kak, be lekker). My personal favourite Afrikaans word is gatvlooi, literally “bum flea”, for an irritating person who won’t go away.

Babbalas virtually adds the groaning to “hangover”. Mampara suggests so much more bumbling and blithering than simply saying “idiot”. Bathong adds a certain gravitas to a pronouncement; imbizo has layers that “gathering” does not. As for “hectic”, it may be an English word, but personally I’m not sure how English speakers in other parts of the world get along without using it as we do. What do they say when they want to convey sympathy? Exhaustion? Amazement? Or what about “shame”? What do non-South Africans say when they can’t say “ag shame”? Do they just look at each other? What are they, monsters?

I often wonder if our emotional intelligence would be greater if we had words that forced us to consider our feelings more consciously; if we had the language readily available to describe a greater wealth of feeling and experience. Would we understand others better? Would we understand ourselves?

It’s hard to say. But at least, if you have read this far, there is a word for you. You are a word-lover; a logophile. Welcome to the club. And, since you’re here, may your festive season have many frowsts, few tartles, and just enough shemomedjamo. DM



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