Tuesday, September 28, 2010

10 Things Tuesday: Great Words (not in English)

I once found a website (now defunct) that used to share words from other languages that had no exact equivalent in English. It got me thinking about words I knew in other languages that I found beauty or value in because of the thoughts they communicated. I speak six languages with varying degrees of proficiency, but to come up with ten words I knew that really had a depth of meaning unmatched by my native tongue was a real challenge. This post has taken me a while to put together.

1. Ganas (Spanish). Ganas can be translated as “feel like” to express a general inclination, but as a cultural gestalt, ganas carries so much more meaning than that. It is desire, heart. It is to be singular of purpose and intent. It represents a kind of conviction that “want” simply doesn’t communicate. I heard this word used to best effect by Edward James Olmos, who played Jaime Escalante in the movie Stand and Deliver.

“You're going to work harder here than you've ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. Desire. If you don't have the ganas, I will give it to you because I'm an expert.”

I preach that to my students every day in the classroom, and I work hard to be the same inspiration to my students Escalante was to his.

2. Disinvolto (Italian). To be disinvolto is to be relaxed, casual, easygoing, self-confident and a little cheeky--all at the same time. I love this word because it represents all I strive to be in my best moments!

3a/3b. Celibe/Nubile (Italian). I find it amusing that these two cognates (words similar in both languages) apply to males and females respectively, but in English they both mean the same thing. They describe someone who is “single”.

4. Flâner (French). This verb, which nowadays means simply to stroll, has its origins in the rather curious tradition of walking turtles down the street in Paris. The turtles set the speed of travel, so observationism (that’s not really a word) was almost forced. The world became a feast for the senses! A flâneur is perfectly well aware of their slow, leisurely behavior, but isn’t concerned; it’s all about the journey, especially if it’s unhurried.

5. Schwangerschaftverhütungsmittel (German). The German language is, to say the least, very comfortable with compound words. They look frightening if you’re not used to seeing them, don’t they? My college German professor told me, though, that most longer German words are made up of several shorter words put together, which makes them easy to figure out--if you understand where the smaller words are, that is. Here’s the breakdown: Schwangerschaft (pregnancy) + verhütung (prevention) + mittel (remedy). In other words, a contraceptive. Of course, with a word that long, by the time you actually get through it to ask someone to use one, it might be too late.

6. Tao (Chinese). A popular word in English, many books have been written with the opening words, “The Tao of...” At its most rudimentary, it means “way” or “path” but, as a term of philosophy it is used to describe (as closely as any word can) the authentic and true nature of things. The thing about tao, though, is that it can’t properly be expressed. Taoism would purport that we can know it, that its principles can be followed, but there is an inherent futility in trying to understand or control it outright. This seeming contradiction is one reason I enjoy studying--and practicing--Buddhism and Taoism.

7. Nunchi (Korean). This is a simple word for the ability to sense what would be the wrong thing to say in a situation--and, by extension, the ability to resist saying it. It goes beyond tact or simple manners; it is the ability to read an audience and instinctively, immediately know what’s appropriate. Nunchi is a great thing to have, especially at parties. I wish I had more of it.

8. Desenrascanço (Portuguese). There is, in Portuguese culture, a great deal of value placed upon the ability to solve a problem without the right tools, training or know-how. To spontaneously draw on your imagination and whatever resources you have at hand to figure out what’s “good enough” is a quality many Portuguese believe is essential to living in their world. It is even taught in colleges! Desenrascanço (literally, disentangling) is the sweet spot of workable that exists between what works perfectly and what will blow up in your face. I heard this described somewhere as “to pull a MacGyver”. That seems appropriate.

9. Schlimazl (Yiddish). I only recently learned that this word meant “someone who is unlucky”. I heard it used first in the theme to the show Laverne and Shirley along with the word “schlemeil”, which refers to a person who is clumsy. Robert Kuttner put the two terms in context for me with the following: “A schlemiel is the traveler who spills his coffee on a fellow passenger. A schlimazel is the fellow he spills it on.” With that explanation, a mystery of many years was instantly made clear. Now I have to go find the theme to Laverne and Shirley and listen to it!

10a and 10b. Tatemae and Honne (Japanese). These two related terms refer respectively to what you pretend to believe and what you actually believe. I love that Japanese culture, with its high degree of reserve, recognizes that there is a difference between what we actually believe and what we're allowed to admit we believe. The closest we have to this is the term “political correctness”, but this term carries a certain distain that simply doesn’t exist in the equivalent in Japanese. From what I know of it, Japanese culture seems not to view the dichotomy as a source of angst or stress. Neither is more true or honest than the other. Rather, they are simply two sides of the same reality. It is, it seems, just the way the world works. I like that view of it.

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