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The meaning of Tingo

A couple of years ago, leafing through  a weighty Albanian dictionary (as you do) I happened upon the interesting fact that they have in that country no less than 27 words for moustache, ranging from a mustaqe madh, or bushy, to a mustaqe posht, one which  droops down at both  ends.

This discovery set me off on a journey. Checking out a Hawaiian dictionary, I found 65 words to describe fishing nets, 108 words for different types of sweet potato and 47 for varieties of banana, from kapule, ‘a banana hanging until its ski has black spots’ to lele, ‘a tall wild banana offered to the gods and used for love magic’. This same language had a fine collection of words, too, for growing old, from ‘aua, ‘a woman beginning to become wrinkled’, to ka’i koko, ‘so old one needs to be carried in a net’.
Other languages threw up similar gems.   My collection of  wonderful words with no equivalent in English grew ever longer, and I started to make a shortlist of my favourites: nakhur, for example, a Persian word meaning ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’; or areodjarekput, the Inuit  for ‘to exchange wives for a few days only’. Many described strange or unbelievable things. When and why, for example, would a man be described as a marilopotes, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coaldust’? And could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb tsuji-giri, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’?

Others expressed concepts which seemed all too familiar. We have all met a Zechpreller, ‘someone who leaves without paying the bill’; spent too much time with an ataoso, the  Central American Spanish for ‘one who sees problems with everything’; or worked with a neko-neko, the Indonesian for ‘one who has a creative idea which only makes things worse’.

In the end my passion became a quiet obsession. I combed over two million words in countless dictionaries. I trawled the Internet, phoned Embassies, and tracked down foreign language speakers who could confirm my findings.  I discovered that not everything sounds the same the world over: in Afrikaans, frogs go kwaak-kwaak, in Korea owls cry buung-buung, while in Denmark the noise of Rice Crispies snap, crackle, popping is  Knisper! Knasper! Knupser!

I found beautiful words to describe things for which we in English have no concise expression, like serein, the French for ‘the rain that falls from a cloudless sky’; or wamadat, the Persian for ‘the intense heat of a sultry night’.  I found words for all stages of life, from paggiq, the Inuit for ‘the flesh torn when a woman delivers a baby’, through Torschlusspanik, the German for ‘the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older’, to mingmu, the Chinese for ‘to die without regret’. I savoured the direct logic of Danish, the succinctness of Malay, the sheer wackiness of Japanese, and realised that sometimes a dictionary can tell you more about a culture than a guide book.

I looked at languages from all corners of the world, from the Fuegian of southernmost Chile to the Inuit of northernmost Alaska, from the Maori of the remote Cook Islands to Siberian Yakut. Some of them describe, of course, strictly local concepts and sensations, such as the Hawaiian kapau’u, ‘to drive fish into a waiting net by striking the water with a leafy branch’; or pukajaw, the Inuit  for ‘firm snow that is easy to cut and provides a warm shelter’. But others reinforce the commonality of human experience. Haven’t we all felt termangu-mangu, the Indonesian for ‘sad and not sure what to do’ or mukamuka, the Japanese for ‘so angry one feels like throwing up’? Most reassuring is to find thoughts that lie on the tip of an English tongue, here crystallised into vocabulary. From the Zambian sekaseka, ‘to laugh without reason’, through the Czech nedovtipa, ‘one who finds it difficult to take a hint’, to the Japanese bakku-shan, ‘a woman who appears pretty when seen from behind but not from the front’. And which of us has not at some time experienced what the Germans define as Scheissenbedauern, ‘the disappointment one feels when something turns out not nearly as badly as one had hoped’(literally, ‘shit regret’)?

Let’s hope this doesn’t happen to Adam with the sales of his book ‘The Meaning of Tingo’, available at Amazon. If you’ve got linguitic insights of your own, ‘The Meaning of Tingo’ also has it’s own website.

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