They Have a Word for It

Author: Howard Rheingold

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases

Published: 1988

I read it: November 2015

word for it

Even though modern writing advice warns against thesaurus usage to avoid sounding pretentious, it’s still fun to page through books about words. Laura found this one used and I brought it to work so that I could read a word from it every weekday morning.

Mr. Rheingold did his eclectic homework, and presents his worldly words under different categories (Human Family Affairs, States of Mind, Toolwords) with a tireless excitement. Indeed, he thinks he’s onto something bigger than just these pages: “It is entirely possible that by reading this book you are participating in a significant linguistic revolution.” Whoa there, Howard.

In some minor cases, the author’s dream has come to fruition. The book includes entries like schadenfreude and zeitgeist, which are more or less common in today’s English. Most of the others remain foreign though, which makes for fine perusing. Some words are quite functional, like the Italian ponte, an extra day off taken to add a weekend to a national holiday. (The word itself means “bridge.”) Others are relevant only to the arenas of art or analysis, but are still enlightening. For example, there is the Russian ostranenie: art as defamiliarization, or making familiar perceptions seem strange. Or the Navajo hózh’q, which refers to the beauty of life as seen and created by a person.

Sometimes I’d stumble upon a word I’d heard in the wrong context, like baraka (Arabic), which brings to mind the character from Mortal Kombat or that weird movie that was uniquely hilarious and confusing when friends and I watched it under certain… mental states. It actually means a gift of spiritual energy that can be used for mundane purposes. Then there’s kekau (Indonesian)—to awaken from a nightmare—which adds another layer to the similarly pronounced word in the episode of Portlandia.

One tiresome angle of the book is the author’s insistence on emphasizing the supposed East-West divide, talking down to his English-speaking audience with insights like, “We 20th-century Americans all learn how to turn on televisions, ride elevators, and open pop-top cans, but nobody teaches us how to dream.” (These insertions also highlight the 1980s publication date.) Though I think this attempt at comparing cultures is entirely well-intentioned, it’s probably the exact opposite way to get someone to care about a foreign word. The entries simply have too much repetitive commentary like this throughout.

However, a slimmed down version of this volume could probably entertain today’s audience. Even if we won’t be using most of these words any time soon, there is still value in emphasizing how language shapes culture, culture shapes language, and some concepts take form only when assigned words of their own.

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