If you look at the statistics around the English language you’d think that we already have more than enough words in this ‘language of the World’ – estimates vary between 500,000 and just over 2 million, depending on how you count them.
Most educated people, however, use no more than 20,000 words or so, which means that we ought to have plenty to spare. Yet we’ve all had those moments when we want to say something and we can’t find exactly the right word to use.
As much as we like to think of English as the biggest and best of all the World languages, it turns out there’s just some things you can’t express in one word … but you can in other languages. So in this article we look at a few – and if they’re sometimes very funny – well, how good is that!
A bore whose only topic of conversation is him or herself
I‘m sure you’ve met someone like this and when you did if only you’d known the Italian word attaccabottoni (at-ACK-a-bot-OH-ni) . Once you can name a danger, it’s easier to face it down, and you could have stared the stranger fearlessly in the eye, dismissively murmured, ‘Attaccabottoni’, and walked on by.
It means a buttonholer, and it refers to the type of bore who manoeuvres you into a corner and proceeds to tell you the long, tedious and apparently endless story of their life, their failed relationship, their children’s success with the violin, or the massive problems they’ve solved single-handedly at work . The one thing it will always be about is them.
Someone very skilled at getting others to pay out of a sense of duty
Schnorrer! (SHNORR-uh) was originally a word used by Jews about Jews, describing a dishonest beggar- a man, for example, who might dress as a gentleman, talk with all the pretensions of a scholar and treat his companion with expansive and condescending civility, but who would still ask for the loan of the price of a phone call. And then ask again. And again for something else.
The English writer Israel Zangwill, working at the end of the nineteenth century, published a satirical novel named The King of Schnorrers, which tells the story of a Sephardic Jew, the grandly named Manasseh Bueno Barzillai Azevedo da Costa, who plays on his claims of scholarship, family background and royal connections to fleece a succession of more or less gullible victims.
Scorn expressed at someone else’s inability to commit fully to something you believe in passionately
This is a word for occasions when you are fully committed to an idea or a project, and you have poured yourself heart and soul into ensuring its success. There’s no second thoughts for you – you have burned your bridges, and you’re not looking back. You’re passionate about it and hope that your commitment will inspire others to follow you. Instead, these ‘blockheads, just don’t get it. Instead of diving in alongside you, they are constantly looking back nervously over their shoulders, ready to pull out and run for cover the first time things take a turn for the worse. So ‘soutpiel’ is the word you can use to describe them.
The word was coined in the early twentieth century by Afrikaaner farmers of South Africa – a people who, with some justification, did not enjoy a good press during much of that century They felt that the English settlers who had flooded out there after the Boer War were never wholeheartedly committed to the future of South Africa, that they maintained close links to Europe, with property and investments ‘back home’ as an insurance policy in case they needed to cut and run. ‘Soutpiel,’ (SOHT-peel) some leathery-faced old Boer must have spat into the dust as he chewed his biltong. The word means literally, in Afrikaans, ‘salt-dick’, and at that moment he gave to the world the memorable image of someone standing with one foot in South Africa and the other in England, his legs stretched so that his penis dangled in the sea.
Dare we say it but maybe the same thought might apply today to those in England who want to stay in the European Union but defend Britain’s right to do things differently.
A sense of the fragility of life
Let’s say that you come downstairs one morning to see that the vase of flowers that last night looked so fresh and full of life has begun to lose its petals. Or you might watch the reds and golds of a beautiful sunset gradually fade away as the sun sinks in the sky.
Any of those experiences might bring you a feeling that the Japanese would call aware (ah-WAH-reh)- a deep sense of beauty, coloured by the realization that what you are looking at is fragile and fleeting.