Lost for Words

Lost for Words

By Sean Braswell



Not everything you want to say is in the dictionary, and that’s OK.

By Sean Braswell

Those who claim that there is “no word for X in Y language” are usually wrong, just as Ronald Reagan was when he claimed that Russians had no word for “freedom.” But in some cases a particular language’s lexicon is indeed lacking, either because the concept is culturally foreign or because its speakers appropriated a word from elsewhere or never bothered to come up with their own. For example, most English speakers are familiar with the concept of schadenfreude, even if there is no equivalent in English.

Here are some of OZY’s favorite missing words. Can you think of others?

Hawaiian Adultery? Alo-hah!

American missionaries in Hawaii during the 19th century had a great deal of trouble explaining the seventh commandment to the locals. The issue? The native Hawaiians had no word for, or concept of, adultery. For a polygamous, matrilineal society in which women chose their sex partners and inheritance was transmitted through the mother, the identity of one’s father was simply not important, much less who he should have been. So what did the missionaries substitute for “adultery”? ”Mischievous mating.”


Privacy in Russian: Nyet

If you’ve ever been in a queue in Russia and felt the breath of the man standing behind you, then you’ve probably wondered how Russians conceive of personal space. What you may not know is that the Russian language does not have a word that equates to “privacy” in English, in the sense of valuing one’s privacy or adjusting one’s privacy settings. Just don’t tell Facebook’s lawyers.

APT, or Algonquin People Time

Einstein discovered what the Algonquin tribes inhabiting Canada and the Northeastern U.S. have long known: Time is relative. As anthropologist Evan T. Pritchard has documented, the Algonquin language has no word for “time” as an abstract concept, since its speakers have “no concept of time outside its embodiments in the things of nature.” They may point at the sky and ask “Where is it now?” in reference to the sun, but time for the Algonquin lies in the natural rhythm of things, and they live very much in the here and now. Thus, there is no need for “holidays” or “weekends” in Algonquin. And debts remain gloriously unpaid.

Gaelic? Yes? No? Dunno!

Your mother always told you to speak in complete sentences, but if you find yourself conversing in Gaelic, then you’ll have no other choice. That’s because there are no words for “yes” or “no” in the traditional Irish language. Instead, you must reply by referring back to the question asked with a full positive or negative statement. So before the bartender asks if you want that third pint of Guinness, make sure you’ve practiced saying, “I would like another pint” before you hit the pub.

The French Kiss

Despite their reputation as lovers and mouth-to-mouth innovators, the French find themselves without a precise term to describe the act of kissing. The verb baiser may once have meant “to kiss,” but today the expression moves lovers from first base to a home run. And though some use embrasser (“embrace”) to signify kissing, it also can mean to hug or caress. So before you suggest a lover’s kiss in front of the Eiffel Tower en français, make sure you and your lover are speaking the same language.