MY INTEREST in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when one day, working as a researcher for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no less than twenty-seven words for “eyebrow” and the same number for different types of moustache, ranging from a mustaqe madh, or bushy, to a mustaqe posht, one which droops down at both ends.
My curiosity soon became a passion. I was unable to go near a bookshop or library without sniffing out the often dusty shelf where the foreign language dictionaries were kept. I started to collect favourites: nakhur, for example, a Persian word meaning “a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled”; many described strange or unbelievable things. How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a marilopotes, the ancient Greek for “a gulper of coal dust”? And could the Japanese samurai really have used the verb tsuji-giri, meaning “to try out a new sword on a passer-by”? And where would you expect to find a cigerci, the Turkish for “a seller of liver and lungs”?
In the end my passion became an 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 in Afrikaans, frogs go kwaak-kwaak, in Korea owls go buung-buung, while in Denmark Rice Crispies go Knisper! Knasper! Knupser!
I found beautiful words to describe things for which we 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 oddness of Japanese.
My book, The Wonder of Whiffling and Other Extraordinary Words in the English Language (Penguin, 2009), on the other hand, is a tour around the language of the British Isles (with plenty of fine coinages from across the pond, Down Under and elsewhere).
I’ve discovered many old words that make very useful additions to any vocabulary today. Most of us know a blatteroon (1645), a person who will not stop talking, not to mention a wallydrag (1508), a worthless, slovenly person, and even a shot-clog (1599), a drinking companion, only tolerated because he pays for the drinks. Along the way I’ve discovered the parnel, a priest’s mistress, through the applesquire, the male servant of a prostitute, to the screever, a writer of begging letters. If the first two of these are now largely historical, the third certainly isn’t, nor is the slapsauce, a person who enjoys eating fine food or the chafferer, the salesman who enjoys talking while making a sale.
How fascinating they are the journeys many words have taken from their original definitions with grape: originally a hook for gathering fruit and later a cluster of fruit growing together; friend: a lover and later a relative or kinsman; sky: meaning a cloud; frantic: insane; corset: a little body; and mortgage: a death pledge. In Tudor times, drink actually meant to smoke tobacco; walk: to roll, toss, move about and later to press cloth; and steward: a keeper of the pigs and later, as wealth expanded, of herds of cattle and land.
Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine