Monday, October 15, 2012

Weird Words

ADAM JACOT DE BOINOD delves passionately into the quirkiness of foreign words and the English language in The Meaning of Tingo, Toujours Tingo and The Wonder of Whiffling

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”?

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

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.

All these, and more, can be found in The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World (Penguin, 2005) and its follow-up, Toujours Tingo: More Extraordinary Words to Change the Way We See the World (Penguin, 2007).

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.

I’ve scoured the dialects of Britain. In the Midlands, we find a jaisy, a polite and effeminate man, and in Yorkshire a stridewallops, a tall and awkward woman. In Cornwall, you might be described as ploffy (plump); in Shropshire, having joblocks (fleshy, hanging cheeks); while down in Wiltshire hands that have been left too long in the washtub are quobbled. The Geordies have the evocative word dottle for the tobacco left in the pipe after smoking, while in Lincolnshire charmings are paper and rag chewed into small pieces by mice. In Suffolk, to nuddle is to walk alone with the head held low, while in Hampshire to vuddle is to spoil a child by injudicious petting.

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.

ADAM JACOT DE BOINOD (pronounced “jacko de bwano”) is hopelessly addicted to strange words. He started reading Latin at seven, with a torch under his bedcovers, went on to study Classics at Cambridge, opened an art gallery, and some time later became a researcher on the BBC quiz show, QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. He compulsively hunts down unusual vocabulary and has now written three books collecting his very best and most unusual finds: The Meaning of Tingo, Toujours Tingo and The Wonder of Whiffing. All three are now gathered in one highly entertaining compendium, I Never Knew There Was a Word For It. All are published by Penguin Books. He is also the author of the Tingo App for iPhones—the Unusual Word Game App.

Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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