Alien Languages - Bilingual Children's Books
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Missing Words

 

There are two things in life that are never there when you need them: the first is an umbrella and the second is a polite, yet deeply accurate and witty retort to an insult. A heated exchange with a colleague can leave you seething for hours, especially when the most scathing retort you could muster at the time was, “sorry”. It’s only at 2am that you flash awake, leap from your bed and in a stroke of genius realise that what you really wanted to say was “you may have insulted my new hat but I can always remove it, you’ll l always be a wally/idiot/?!#*!? (final word, of course, dependent on your level of annoyance). This is L’esprit de l’escalier, a very handy French term which neatly describes this frustrating phenomenon. Roughly translated as “staircase wit” (as it is only when flouncing up the stairs that your witty retort comes to you) it is one of many terms completely missing from the English language which would be rather useful to have.
The French are not the only ones who can help us out of our gaping linguistic gaps. Imagine yourself as a young Japanese lad, prowling the streets of Tokyo in search of a lovely girlfriend. Suddenly you spy her, looking into a shop window. She’s got her back to you, but you can already tell this one’s a winner – nice bottom, bouncing, shiny hair, lovely legs. But, all of a sudden, she turns around and you realise with horror you have been admiring the buttocks of your ageing history teacher. This is bakku-shan, a girl who looks promising from behind but is a great disappointment from the front.
Casual misogyny aside, the Japanese have a whole host of terms to describe a range of awkward social situations, from tatemae and honne (what you pretend to believe and what you actually believe), age-otori (to look worse after a haircut – which may have prevented a lot of shame and heartache had the aforementioned history teacher suffered from it) and finally arigata-meiwaku (an act someone does for you that you didn’t want them to do and which you tried to avoid them doing but which they went ahead and did anyway, determined to do you a favour, only for things to go wrong and cause you problems but for which social convention requires you to express gratitude). Phew.
If Japanese society is a minefield of social anxiety, the Germans seem more to the point, giving us the old favourite Schadenfreude (pleasure at someone else’s pain) and the rather unfortunate Backpfeifengesicht (a face that needs punching, perhaps the Teutonic response to l’esprit de l’escalier). The Scandinavians are a little more peaceful, filling more pleasant linguistic lacunas with such joys as Forelsket (Norwegian – the feeling induced by falling in love) and hygge (an untranslateable Danish word that can be summed up as cosiness, fellowship, security, reassurance or well-being – new year’s eve in a snow hut with good friends, hot chocolate and a roaring fire, for example).
The Scots enjoy a bit of conviviality too, giving us the Gaelic sgriob (the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip before taking a sip of whisky) whilst their counterparts south of the border were clearly not as overwhelmed by festive spirit, with the Old English uhtceare, meaning “worry before dawn” - no doubt brought about by hat-related insults or the exact location of one’s umbrella.