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!
Someone who has a talent for getting out of a fix.
Démerdeur (DAY-MERRD-URR), with the bluntness of a peasant’s dialact, literally means ‘someone who is proficient at getting himself out of the merde’ – a bit of a rascal who may often find himself in trouble but who generally works out a way to extricate himself without too much of a fuss. The French dictionary doesn’t list a feminine equivalent – if it did, it would presumably be démerdeuse – but there’s obviously no reason why women, too, shouldn’t be up to no good and similarly adept at avoiding the consequences.
It’s much more direct than the rather prissy English reference to someone who ‘always comes up smelling of roses’.
A gentle, unspoken feeling that you are about to fall in love
It’s probably not a coincidence that we talk of ‘falling’ in love. It’s a sudden thing, at least according to the songs – involuntary, inconvenient, irresistible, possibly even disastrous.
However, it doesn’t have to be any of those things. Just ask the Japanese. They have a phrase, koi no yokan (), which tells a very different story. It translates literally as ‘premonition of love or desire’, and it refers to the sense that you are about to fall in love with someone.
The lazy translation into English is sometimes ‘love at first sight’, but koi no yokan is much more delicate and restrained than that.
Endlessly wet and dreary weather
There’s no doubt that Scotland has given many things to the world, ranging from porridge to penicillin, Scotch whisky to the steam engine, tarmac to the telephone. Given that the wettest place in the whole of Europe is Scotland’s western Highlands, it’s not surprising that they have also given us the most memorable and evocative word to describe persistently dull, wet, cold, dreary and unforgiving weather.
Dreich (DREECH, with the final eh pronounced as in loch) is an ancient word. Scandinavian in origin, it originally meant tedious or protracted, like a job that drags on and on, a book that doesn’t know when to end, or a long and boring sermon.
Lastly it should be noted that the thing about a dreich day, apart from the cold, the sunlessness and the miserable, soaking drizzle, is that it seems as if it’s never going to end.
Torment caused by an acute awareness of your own misery and the wider suffering of humanity in general
Litost, pronounced LEE-tossed is, according to the Czech writer Milan Kundera, ‘a state of torment caused by the sudden sight of one’s own misery’.
In Kundera’s novel ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting‘, he notes that the long first syllable sounds ‘like the wail of an abandoned dog’. Love may be a cure for litost, but when the first passionate flush of idealized desire is past, love can also be a source of it. The emotion is, he says mischievously, a torment that is particularly felt by the young, since anyone with any experience of life will know how commonplace and tedious his own self-regarding misery is.
There is no English equivalent even though the word describes a state of mind that is more common than we would like to believe. Perhaps we need the word in the language, if only to do our best to avoid the emotion it describes.