Do You Have a Word for It?

As someone who happens to fancy languages and etymology, reading The Greeks Had a Word for ItWords You Never Knew You Can’t Do Without is like going to a confectionery and having the privilege to freely sample the flavour of all sweets and chocolate there. I would feel …delighted as there would be flavours that I had never known and might not want to live without. OK I guess I’m exaggerating but I’m quite amused by this Andrew Taylor’s book that has enlightened me, with a bucket full of wonderful words from around the world ranging from Russian, Swedish, German, Inuit, Japanese, Thai, Javanese, to Navajo, ancient Greek, Czech, Farsi and many more.

As the title suggests, the book is about words and words only. The author compiled various words from numerous languages that are spoken across the world. These assorted words define emotions, experiences and things more perfectly than any existing English words. To say it in another way, there is no English equivalence to these words.

The book is divided into 7 chapters, each of which has a theme that lies behind an intriguing title; Matters of the Heart, Sticks and Stones…, Elusive Emotions, The Great Outdoors, Cultural Connotations, Nuts and Bolts, and Only Human After All. Can you guess the theme of each title before reading the whole chapter itself? Some are easy but some are quite challenging.

For each word that he has chosen, the author gives information of where the word comes from, along with its definition. It is then followed by a further explanation about the origin of the word and how to use it. I like his witty style in explaining the words, making it easy for the readers to understand because of the contextual examples he constantly uses. To ensure the clarity, he uses stories, jokes, British customs, and anecdotes that enlighten and entertain the readers at the same time.

So here are my 20 favourite words, the ones that I think I’m gonna need for the rest of my life.

Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese): closeness between two people – for example to run one’s finger tenderly through someone’s hair (aww… it’s such a snuggly word, isn’t it?).

Koi no yokan (Japanese): a gentle, unspoken feeling that you are about to fall in love.

Hiraeth (Welsh): intense happiness at a love that was, and sadness that it’s gone (For me, it’s such a wonderful word to describe our feeling of love for people who have passed away).

Davka (Hebrew): a gruff, one-word response to someone in authority (I need to introduce this one to my husband, it’s such an efficient word for me to use :))

Mafan (Chinese): when it’s all too much bother but, to your mind, not being bothered is not your fault (definitely the word I would use to someone who bothers me while PMS is already killing me).

Pochemuchka (Russian): term of endearment for a child who asks a lot of questions – perhaps too many questions (really cocok for my little boy).

Handschuhschneeballwerfer (German): a man who is a bit of a wimp.

Duende (Spanish): visceral or spiritual feeling evoked by the arts.

Tengo duende por la pintura de Mondrian.

Fernweh (German): the longing, or need, to be far away –anywhere else (I surely experience this kind of feeling every now and then).

Komorebi (Japanese): the magical atmosphere created by sunlight filtering through leaves.

My husband, pochemuchka, and I, enjoying komorebi on one autumn afternoon.

Hozh’q (Navajo): a deep, wholehearted appreciation of the beauty of the world.

Honne & Tatemae (Japanese): a person’s private and public faces –how we really feel, and the mask we show to the world.

Krengjai (Thai): an acute awareness of other people’s feelings; a desire to make others feel comfortable.

Desenrascanço (Portuguese): to solve a practical problem by using only the materials to hand (it reminds me of Mac Gyver).

Epibreren (Dutch): unspecified activities which give the appearance of being busy and important in the workplace.

Tartle (Scots): social faux pas of forgetting the name of the person you’re introducing.

T’aarof (Farsi): the gentle verbal ping-pong between two people who both insist on paying and won’t back down (I can’t possibly have this kind of ping-pong with a Dutch, I bet you know why).

Iktsuarpok (Inuit): the anxious and irresistible need to check whether who, or what, you are waiting for has arrived yet (my son does this quite often).

Fremdschämen (German) Myötähäpeä (Finnish): the empathy felt when someone else makes a complete fool of himself.

Schemomechama (Georgian): the embarassing sudden realisation that, somehow, you’ve eaten it all (I have got to remember this one!)

To my surprise, I found two words that I am completely familiar with. The first one is the Javanese word cocok.  The second one is a word that hasn’t even been listed in our beloved Great Dictionary of the Indonesian Language. It is the word jayus, ladies and gentlemen 🙂


Now, in my humble opinion it’s suffice to say that there is no such a thing as words cannot express bla…bla…bla…. We just have to go the extra mile and try to find them in another language 🙂 Let’s be more articulate by expanding the vocabularies of both our mother tongue and other languages.



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