Monday, August 9, 2010

Words We Use

The Guardian has published a list of interesting words in other languages.

Did you know there is a word in Portuguese for someone who shows up at wakes to get free food? Or that there is a word in Arabic for the sound earrings make as you walk?

Douglas Adams and John Lloyd produced a book called The Meaning Of Liff, which should be on everyone's bedside table. The premise is simple - in life, there are many concepts which are familiar to all of us, but we don't have words for them (someone who shows up at wakes and funerals to get free food, for example). And yet our maps are scattered with words that are barely being used. The Meaning Of Liff was an attempt to marry the two.

It's full of definitions for things and experiences that we are all familiar with, including a whole section on corridor etiquette. You know when you're walking down a very long corridor towards someone you recognise and you both try not to acknowledge each other too early - but it sometimes goes horribly wrong? That has a name. So does every possible way of handling it. There is a name for the bristle that sticks out at a 90 degree angle to a cheap paintbrush and the ex-girlfriend you have almost completely forgotten about, but that drives your wife inexplicably mad with jealousy.

That's often a mark of good writing - the ability to pinpoint and express something universal that hasn't become a cliche yet. There is a line from A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley that I've always loved: 'The evening lay before me, and all I had to do was receive it.' I recognised that feeling when I read that line, and it was that recognition that made me love the scene.

For my part, I feel there should be a word for that sense of anticipation and possibility that one gets when one sees a large display of stationery, knitting wool, fabric, paper, musical instruments or art supplies - the feeling that in spite of my total ineptitude with any of the above, the mere sight of their existence is enough to inspire me to do something great with them.

Or is that one just me? :p


  1. Thanks Ellen, I have taken down the name of this book and it is on my must get list. I am forever falling short of just the right word to convey a mood or feeling.

  2. It's quite funny and a good bedtime read - easy to dip in and out of.

  3. No, it's not just you, although I'm struggling to invent a word which might help you out. Give it time, though.

    I saw the article you refer to, incidentally, and just about died with pleasure to see Pesamenteiro get a mention - and, we must hope, a wider audience. I'm so deeply proud of the Portuguese that they have a word for someone who gatecrashes funerals. The stark entry in the Dicionário Online de Português could make me weep with pleasure:

    Indivíduo que, a pretexto de dar pêsames, entra nas casas para comer.

    Oh, praise the Lord and let me die right now for I may never be happier. And we must wonder, of course, just how much this goes on in Portugal, Ms Brickley, if they have been forced to make up a word for it? It's all too beautiful.

    You know, when I saw the Guardian thing I wanted to write a blog post immediately but got distracted by.....well, stuff. And now it'll just look like I'm copying you, of course, if I ever get round to doing such a thing. Why would you do that to me? Why?

    Anyway, hello. How are you doing? I'm just catching up with your blog - and this was a magical way to start, thank you.

    Kind regards etc....


  4. Hello. Sorry to bother you again - I'm still going through your blog - but I've just seen you say to someone (in the comments thread of a more recent post) that you've never seen The Wire. I didn't want to litter your blog with comments everywhere as I ascend - triumphantly - to the present day, so I thought I'd best come back here.

    Please, please do yourself a favour and start watching The Wire. I'll even lend you my box sets (for a fiercely negotiated price), but whatever you do - make yourself watch this show. Peerless.

    Okay, I'll get out of your hair.

    Kind regards etc.....



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