Lessons from eating a meal sideways

Have you ever had the experience of wishing that you could articulate something from another language, but just couldn’t find the English equivalent?

It happened to me just the other day in a conversation with COURIER Editor Kathryn Dunn, when she recounted all of the work she was putting into the newspaper’s big move. After a particularly heavy day of packing, labeling and organizing, she was exhausted. In an effort to be encouraging, I signed off on our conversation with an upbeat, “buon lavoro!”

There was really no way to say the same thing in English. If I had said happy work day!, work hard! or even keep up the good work!, she would have certainly perceived my response as snarky. In Italian, however, buon lavoro is said to someone in earnest. The closest translation would be  have a productive/meaningful work experience. Unlike the English good job, which typically praises a performance or finished product, buon lavoro is meant to inspire happiness, or satisfaction, within the worker.

The Japanese have a similar expression, ganbatte, which goes beyond work and has the broader sense of work hard, do your best, chin up, be strong. Perhaps a close English equivalent would be hang in there, but when I lived in Japan I observed the word used in all sorts of situations. It was said studying, playing a sport or even persuading someone. In a classic example of collectivist culture, the person who receives the words of encouragement responds with an enthusiastic ganbarimasu, which agrees with the good wisher, “You are right, I will do my best!”

I asked my students to help me with this article by sharing some of the expressions that they miss most from their native languages. A German student reported that she wished she could use the word kummerspeck, or grief bacon, which refers to the excess weight gained from emotional overeating.

A Japanese student surprised me with a word that perfectly describes one of my most annoying habits. She explained that tsundoku refers to buying a book and leaving it unread in a pile of other new, unread books in the house. I had no idea that other people did that.

A Chinese student looked at me pensively and asked… “Do you have study gods in English?” “Study what?” I replied. She explained that someone who doesn’t have to study very much but still does amazingly well on tests and assignments is called a Xue Shen, or study god. She followed up by explaining that a person who performs equally well but spends hours studying is called a study master, or Xue Ba.

An online search turned up some wonderful expressions that simply don’t exist in English. In Gaelic, the word sgriob describes the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky (who knew?); in Russian, a pochemuchka is a person who asks a lot of questions; in Japanese, yoko meshi or ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ refers to the stress induced by speaking a foreign language; and in Tagalog, gigil is the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.

A few years ago, I received a book titled, The Meaning of Tingo: and other extraordinary words from around the world. Tingo is a Pascuense word, which basically means to steal what you want from a friend by slowly borrowing items one at a time. Needless to say,  the word tingo made its way into my lexicon along with some other gems from the book…and yes, the person who gave me the book had indeed loaned me many items over the years.

The book offers a glimpse at the way in which different cultures view the world. For example, in Hopi the word masa’ytaka refers to insects, airplanes and pilots, while the Indonesian neko-neko describes someone who has a creative idea that only makes things worse.

I love turning the pages and stumbling across wacky, funny, offbeat words and I must agree with the author’s insight when he notes that, “sometimes a dictionary can tell you more about a culture than a guidebook.”


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