Isn't There a (Foreign) Word for It?
Bill Long 2/6/07
Howard Rheingold's They Have a Word For It (1988)
About 20 years ago Howard Rheingold, better known for his writing on technology than on language, wrote this delightful little book on useful foreign phrases that would profit us if we brought them into English. Though he makes reference to dozens of phrases in languages with which I am not familiar (Chinese, Japanese, Huron, etc.), he has several from the European languages, which will be the focus of this essay. Here are eight he introduces, one of which is already an English word--and has been used in the National Spelling Bee (Gedankenexperiment). These eight words or phrases come from French, Italian, German, Hebrew/Yiddish and Spanish.
1. Treppenwitz or esprit de l'escalier. The words mean an "afterthought," but they are much more visual than our "afterthought." The German literally means a "joke on the stairs," while the French is the "spirit of the stairs." They both suggest our common reality--we realize while we are going down the stairs, or after the task or encounter has been completed, what we really should have said. When I was in law practice I had a friend who specialized in appellate litigation. The Supreme Court for the state is in Salem, but his firm is in Portland. One of the cities between the two is Wilsonville. He labels his "Wilsonville moments" those times he has had brilliant ideas he should have argued in Salem but which didn't dawn on him until he was half-way home--in Wilsonville. Don't these words give us far more visual delight than "afterthought"?
2. A gedankenexperiment (German capitalizes nouns) is, simply, a thought experiment. It had already been attested as early as 1958: "The first presentation involves a gedankenexperiment; it supposes a super-microscope more powerful than any electronic microscope." This word is useful for us when we want to come up with an imaginary scenario for something. "Let's imagine"...that is the spirit of a gedankenexperiment.
3. Nakhes and tsuris are two Yiddish words that mean, respectively, pride and disappointment. The former, derived from the Hebrew nahat, suggests the special pride one might feel at the achievement of one's children while tsuris, though not limited to familial disappointment, finds its natural usage there. Which parent doesn't know the special nakhes (pronounced NOKH ess) you feel when you see your child score a basket, or play a musical solo perfectly or perform in a play? It is as if you have one shining moment where your life "adds up." On the other hand, who doesn't know the special sad moments or disappointments which only a parent can understand? Though most of us have learned not to live our lives through our children, we still feel their victories and losses--sometimes as only a parent can do. A list of 100 Yiddish words in English is here.
4. Let's slip into Italian and study fare secco qualcuno. Literally, this phrase means "to make someone dry," but the word "secco" in Italian has so many connotations that we can understand the dictionary's translation of this as "to blow somebody away, to do someone in." What is in view here is the opposite of # 1 above, or the experience of having the brains or quickness to mount the perfect response to someone so as to 'leave them dry.' They can't come back to you; it is as if their saliva has just dried up completely. We all long for the time, at least once in our life, when we can just blow someone right out of the water by a witty or powerful retort. We want to leave them dry. I think the word secco ought to be brought into English....to leave a person secco would be what this is about.
5. While we are on Italian, let's do sapere vivere. Literally meaning "to know how to live," this is a phrase which means "to know how to handle people." We marvel at the skill of some when they seemingly just know how to handle quarrels and conflicts and irascible people and difficult situations, and they do it with such aplomb and calm that we wish we had a word for it. We want a word that is stronger than "being diplomatic" or "being skillful with people." Such a person really does "sapere vivere." But I think we can even expand the meaning further, with the help of the most engaging political figure Italy has had in a long time, Silvio Berlusconi. He has been in the news lately because of a groveling apology he had to offer to his wife for inappropriate public sexual remarks he made about other women, but there is something about Berlusconi that seems to attract the attention of both Italian men and women. He is rich, handsome, powerful, and is able seemingly to handle almost everyone skillfully (except his wife, I suppose). He knows how to live. I think the phrase thus is most useful as a two word phrase when we see someone who just seems to have it all together. All we need say while looking at them is sapere vivere. Enough said.
6. The Spanish word confianza, Rheingold reminds us, means "unshakable, firm belief in someone. This is even stronger than our words "in confidence" for it suggests that a person holds something "down to the spiritual marrow." We have words in law to try to capture the concept--something is "privileged" or "confidential"--but the word confianza suggests a sacredness to the material that is being protected. As Rheingold says, if you want to express unwavering support for a person, say that you have confianza.
7. I have to confess, I love the German word Torschlusspanik. There is an umlaut over the "u." The literal meaning of the word is "panic at having the door shut," and may originally have referred to the feeling of fear or panic if you are excluded from something or if you are locked in a place you want to escape. But, as with many German words, this word has morphed in meaning and now most normally relates to the "panic" felt by a woman whose biological clock is running and she has no viable "prospects" out there. In this case, the door is about to close--does that mean the "door of her womb," in the sense that she will be unable to be impregnated? Or does it just mean that she has, as we say, "missed the boat" or has "watched the train depart from the platform?" In any case, it is a word suggesting extreme anxiety because one might be excluded from something considered very important or essential to the good life. As the recorded message says in the Washington DC Metro: "The doors are closing." Think torschlusspanik.
8. Let's conclude with the French phrase epater les bourgeois, with a grave accent on the first "e" in epater. It literally means to "amaze the middle class" and refers to the shock that new music, youth culture and other things bring to the "respectable people" of a society. The behavior in view must not merely be raucous; it must actually shock the conscience of people. I think the reason that many people liked the movie Borat, which I dismissed in this review, is because Borat managed to get under the skin of conventional mores in our culture and show them for what they were--sometimes blind or unthinking prejudices. So we might say that Borat's epater les bourgeois was successful with most reviewers and viewers.
I think his book deserves one more essay, but not today.