One day while I was working as a researcher for the BBC quiz program “QI,” I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary and discovered that the Albanians have no fewer than 27 words for eyebrows and the same number for mustache, ranging from mustaqe madh, or brushy, to mustaqe posht, or drooping at both ends. Soon I was unable to go near a secondhand bookshop or library without seeking out the shelves where the foreign-language dictionaries were kept. I would scour books in friends’ houses with a similar need to pan for gold.
My curiosity became a passion, even an obsession. In time I combed through more than two million words in hundreds of dictionaries. I trawled the Internet, phoned embassies and tracked down foreign-language speakers who could confirm my findings. Who knew, for example, that Persian has a word for “a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils have been tickled” (nakhur)? Or that the Inuits have a verb for “to exchange wives for a few days only” (areodjarekput)? Why does Pascuense, spoken on Easter Island, offer tingo, which means “to borrow things from a friend’s house, one by one, until there’s nothing left”?
The English language has a long-established and voracious tendency to naturalize foreign words: ad hoc, feng shui, croissant, kindergarten. We’ve been borrowing them from other cultures for centuries. But there are so many we’ve missed.
Our body-conscious culture might have some use for the Hawaiian awawa, for the gap between each finger or toe; the Afrikaans waal, for the area behind the knee, or the Ulwa (Nicaragua) alang, for the fold of skin under the chin. Surely we could use the Tulu (India) karelu, for the mark left on the skin by wearing anything tight. And how could we have passed up the German Kummerspeck, for the excess weight one gains from emotion-related overeating? (It translates literally as “grief bacon.”)
Gras bilong fes, from the Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin, is more poetic than “beard”; it means “grass belonging to the face.” And how about the German Backpfeifengesicht, or “face that cries out for a fist in it”?
In Wagiman (Australia), there’s an infinitive—murr-ma—for “to walk along in the water searching for something with your feet.” The Dutch have uitwaaien, for “to walk in windy weather for fun,” but then Central American Spanish speakers may win a prize for articulating forms of motion with achaplinarse—“to hesitate and then run away in the manner of Charlie Chaplin.”
In Russian, they don’t speak of crying over spilled milk; they say kusat sebe lokti, which means “to bite one’s elbows.” That may be better than breaking your heart in Japanese, because harawata o tatsu translates literally as “to sever one’s intestines.” To be hopelessly in love in Colombian Spanish is to be “swallowed like a postman’s sock” (tragado como media de cartero). That happy state may lead to dancing closely, which in Central American Spanish is pulir hebillas (“to polish belt buckles”).
Malaysians recognize kontal-kontil, or “the swinging of long earrings or the swishing of a dress as one walks.” Fuegian, in Chile, has a word for “that shared look of longing where both parties know the score yet neither is willing to make the first move” (mamihlapinatapei). But Italian has biodegradabile, for one “who falls in love easily and often.”
Persian has mahj, for “looking beautiful after a disease”—which, deftly used, might well flatter (vaseliner in French, for “to apply Vaseline”) some recovered patients. But you’d have to lay it on pretty thick for a nedovtipa, who in Czech is “someone who finds it difficult to take a hint.”
On Easter Island, it may take two to tingo, but it takes only one to hakamaru, which means “to keep borrowed objects until the owner has to ask for them back.” Of course, words once borrowed are seldom returned. But nobody is going harawata o tatsu over that.