Word Nerd: 5 Untranslatables

posted in: Word Nerd 8
Tiny book. Image: Wikipedia.


I have a fondness for words. Does it show?

But there is woe in my life. This woe is real and comes from the fact that I do not speak another language. Though I do feel English is a boss language to know, I read somewhere that “speaking a second language is like having a second soul” and I want one!

I wanna second soul! I wanna second soul!

:: kicks feet, flops on floor of supermarket, wailing ::

Yes, I did take a few Spanish classes two summers ago; remember how I was, however briefly, “Chica de Papel“? It was fun, but look: If I’m going to learn a language I need to take a year off my life (or large chunks of it) and learn a language. One class a week for eight weeks, working in a workbook at Instituto Cervantes just didn’t take. Maybe I was a bad student, but I have lots of credit hours that would prove otherwise. I fear it’s immersion or nothing for me if I want a second soul.

So I make do. One way I make do is to continuously improve my working vocabulary, annexing both English and non-English terms. Which brings me to several untranslatable words that I would now like to share. These have been pulled from a couple different sources, one of them being The School of Life, which I have crowed about before.

Here are a few words from other languages/times with their definitions. See if you aren’t charmed, moved, and thoughtful as you read through them.

saudade (Portuguese)
A bittersweet, melancholic yearning for something beautiful which is now gone: a friendship from childhood; a great apartment; a successful business, etc. With this pain comes an attendant pleasure that we had such pleasure in the first place.

schilderwald (German)
A street that has so many street signs, you get lost.

pochemuchka (Russian)
A person who asks too many questions.

vade mecum (Latin)
A valued, even precious, book or guide that is kept constantly at hand for consultation; literally translates to “go with me.” [I see my diary as a vade mecum, for example!]

litost (Czech)
The kind of humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishments, of everything that has gone wrong in our own lives.


Perhaps I don’t need a second soul. There’s an awful lot to do with the one I already have.


Chutzpah: If You Can’t Pronounce It …

posted in: Word Nerd 0
Matzoh ball soup. I know how to pronounce it, too! Photo: Wikipedia.
Matzoh ball soup — that’s “MOTT-zuh.” Photo: Wikipedia.


One Sunday afternoon, many years ago in Iowa City, I was trying desperately to charm my then-boyfriend’s parents.

We were all riding in his parents’ car. His dad was driving. His mother sat in front seat. Guy and I were in the back. And I did fine the majority of the trip.

The fellow I was dating at the time was a chef — a good one. When I got the job at the cafe where he cheffed, I knew nothing about food beyond Mom’s spaghetti and my young-adult version of it.* But this person, this chef, taught me how to eat. He showed me the world of fresh food beautifully prepared and it changed my life because I love my family, would die for my family, respect and value my family — but my family is not a food family. That’s okay! But when I learned how to eat (and how to cook) because of the chef, life tasted different. And I like different.

So we’re in the folks’ Beemer and Chef’s lovely, intelligent, handsome mother asks me this or that question about this or that thing. I have the occasion to use a word that I liked — liked, past tense: chutzpah. Great word. Yiddish. Means “shameless audacity, impudence.” Like, “He had the chutzpah to run for class president after pulling that stunt in gym class.” I knew how to use the word. But I didn’t know that chutzpah was pronounced “HOOTZ-pah” and ideally, one should do that Yiddish glottal cough thing with the “H” sound. I didn’t know any of that. Your hapless heroine pronounced it, “CHUTT-spa.” Hard “CHUTT.” Spa.

These people were Jewish. By the way.

Chef’s mother made this sound that was half-gasp, half-snort and turned back to look at me with kindness but great, great mirth. “Honey, you pronounce it ‘HOOTZ-pah.” I cocked my head to the side.

“Ha. Ah. I see. Well, you know, then, ha. Ha, then. It’s… She had HOOTZ-pah. For the thing. Are we close? I think we’re close.”

Over a decade! Over a decade since I said “CHUTT-spa” in a car with three Jewish people all with generous Yiddish vocabularies and I still can’t forget it. I thought about it today because I saw the word in an article and that’s a pain because the chutzpah memory starts a machine in my head that spits out all the other times I’ve mispronounced words in mixed company. I was at a fancy lunch meeting once — one example — and ordered the endive salad. I said, “I’ll have the EN-dive salad, please.” The waitress repeated back, “The ahhn-DEEVE salad?” and I wanted to stick my head under the tablecloth.

Turns out you can say “ahn-DEEVE” or “EN-dive.” Both are okay. But there’s just one chutzpah.

*Note: Both versions = amazing

Word Nerd: Boo

posted in: Word Nerd 1

Blame it on Halloween last week: I got “boo” on the brain. Not the go-to ghost word “Boo!” but the slang term for a quasi-girlfriend/boyfriend, as in “I love my boo” or “It’s just me and my boo. I think boo is the best thing to happen to the English language since chortle.**

Doing research on the Internet is great and all, but from time to time it reveals its limitations. To truly get to the bottom of the etymology of boo, I would need to speak to a linguistics professor or a cultural anthropologist — the web didn’t help much. I found the following possibilities for the existence of boo:

– it’s from the French beau (pronounced “bo”) meaning “boyfriend or male admirer,” which found its way into Afro-Caribbean language through French colonization
– it’s a Southern-bred, derivative term of endearment, lineage going something like this:
poppet –> poopsie –> boopsie –> boo
– it’s just short for “booty”

Who can say? Well, Yahoo question boards can try (boy do they) but I’m not sure about any of these answers and that last one is straight up dubious. I feel confident that boo is a word born in black culture, though. The first time I ever heard it used was in that song “Dilemma,” by Nelly and former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland. The chorus went: No matter what I do/All I think about is you/Even when I’m with my boo/You know I’m crazy over you. Tsk-tsk, children. But until I meet a cultural anthropologist at a cocktail party whose studies include American Ebonics, it could be a long time before I know the true origins. I can still love the word, though, and I sure do.

I love boo because it names a real thing and it’s phonetically perfect for what that thing is. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I have a boo. You and I are having lunch and you ask me what I did over the weekend. I say, “It was me and my boo, just hanging out.” You could infer that my boo was male, because I am straight. You would know that this fellow is involved with me romantically, but you also know I don’t have a boyfriend. So is this person just a random, um, date? (We’re speaking hypothetically, remember.) No, boo implies a tenderness and a familiarity that elevates the subject into something more special than a frivolous fling. I mean, I wanted to hang out with him all weekend, so he must be worth hanging out with.

So I like the word because there do exist these kinds of relationships in the world: something not official, but not pointless. Something important, but not call-your-mother about it. My boo, my boo, my boo.

And then there’s the darlingness of it, the baby-like sound that the word is. It’s close to “goo,” as in “goo-goo, ga-ga” and close to “baby” and it’s also slang, which means you feel pretty street when you say it. I don’t know many people who wouldn’t respond positively if their partner, spouse, lover, etc., affectionately put their arm around them, pulled them close, and said, “Hey, boo.”

Try it. Don’t try it on someone you don’t have genuinely tender, romantic feelings toward, though, because it would be way too familiar. Kinda like calling your 60-year-old Spanish teacher in high school “senorita,” it just makes everyone a little antsy. And to all the boos who had good weekends together, hats off to you.

(But put your pants back on.)

** The word “chortle” did not exist in the English language before Lewis Carroll wrote Jabberwocky in 1871. A hybrid of “chuckle” and “snort,” it is but one of almost two dozen entirely new words introduced in that legendary poem. Now that’s a writer who can write. Check it out.