Foreign words I’ve been looking for my whole life

This morning, I woke up thinking about The Guinness Book of World Records. I was obsessed with it when I was young and used to walk around the house spouting random facts from it until my mother, with slightly gritted teeth, told me that it was a nice day and shouldn’t I go outside and play?

I don’t remember a lot of the records anymore. I do remember feeling terribly sad for the tallest man who had ever lived, Robert Wadlow, who died at 22 after growing to be 8′ 11″ (here’s a video of him at 17). I remember being absolutely horrified by pictures of people with the longest fingernails and wondering what would possess a person to take on that sort of challenge.

But the fact that stuck with me longest and that I woke up thinking about today was the “most succinct word,” though I remembered the category being “the word with the longest definition.” I couldn’t remember the word or what language it came from, but a quick search led me to it. The word is Mamihlapinatapai (mah-mee-lah-pin-yah-tah-pie). It’s apparently Yaghan, a language spoken in Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the southern tip of South America. Guinness defines the word as meaning “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.” That’s the definition I remember; at the time I thought it terribly romantic.

But after doing some involved research on Wikipedia, I discovered that Mamihlapinatapai has also been defined as “that look across the table when two people are sharing an unspoken but private moment. When each knows the other understands and is in agreement with what is being expressed. An expressive and meaningful silence.” Perhaps I’ve lost my romantic spark, but I like this definition more because it seems applicable to a far larger number of situations.

Imagine the complexities of such moments. Sharing Mamihlapinatapai with someone is wonderfully intimate but becomes complicated when others are around. I’m not sure what’s worse: observing and therefore being excluded from another pair’s Mamihlapinatapai or realizing that your moment of Mamihlapinatapai is being observed by another. Either can create intense discomfort, but the reasons why are complex and context-specific.

In the first case, is the Mamihlapinatapai you’re seeing private but sanctioned–a glance of understanding shared by people much closer than you? Is it a response to something you just said and therefore indicative of some sort of understanding they have about you which they have discussed amongst themselves? Or did you just witness intimacy where there should be none–the hint of an affair or at least a relationship deeper than you knew existed? All situations lead to slightly different emotions.

But then again, when your Mamihlapinatapai is observed by another, it’s almost worse. First, it feels rudelike whispering a secret in front of someone else. Or, if the Mamihlapinatapai involves a negative response to another person, it’s a violation of decorum at least, regardless of whether the subject of your shared look saw you or not. For example, Joe says something stupid, Jane and I share a look that means, “There he goes again,” and Joe sees it. Obviously, rude. But what if the person who sees it is Suzie, Joe’s girlfriend? She is now aware of our mockery of Joe and likely annoyed. But even If Suzie agrees with us that Joe says stupid things sometimes, she is still aware that Jane and I chose to share that understanding with each other and not with her, implying our closer relationship and that we’ve talked about Joe in private amongst ourselves. Ugh–I could go on forever.

Second, what does it say about the culture of Tierra del Fuego that its people needed this word in their vocabulary? Is Mahihlapinatapai not considered a social faux pas there if observed by another? Or are people there less likely to mingle in large groups? Less likely to talk about others behind their backs? Do they only share Mahihlapinatapai when there’s no one else in the room?

Turns out there are tons of websites that list wonderful foreign words for which we have no English counterpart. Mental Floss has a list, Buzz Feed, Cracked, as well as a bunch o’ blogs. They repeat each other a lot, so I’ll just give you a couple of my favorites:

1. Backpfeifengesicht (German): a face that needs to be punched. For me, this is Gwyneth Paltrow’s mug.

2. Kummerspeck (German): weight gained due to emotional overeating. Literally, “grief bacon.”

3. Tartle (Scottish): the moment of panic when you are introducing someone and realize you have forgotten their name.

4. Mencolek (Indonesian): tapping someone on the shoulder to fool them. The Indonesians must be a fun bunch.

5. Gigil (Filipino): the overwhelming urge to pinch or squeeze something that is very cute.

6. Tsundoku (Japanese): the act of leaving a book unread after buying it.

7. Boketto (Japanese): gazing into the distance without thinking.

8. Hygge (Danish): the pleasant, intimate feeling of sitting around a fire in winter with close friends. (My question: does it have to be winter?)

9. Cavoli Riscaldati (Italian): the result of getting back together with someone you should never have gotten back together with. Literally, “reheated cabbage.”

10. L’esprit de l’escalier (French): thinking of a comeback when it is too late to deliver it. Literally, “staircase wit.”

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4 thoughts on “Foreign words I’ve been looking for my whole life

  1. It’s nice to know that the tradition of children being fascinated by world records extends farther back than the 90s, when groups would gather in the library at break times to find the most disgusting achievement and dare someone to devote their life to beating that record. The long fingernails one always struck me as the goal of an independently wealthy eccentric. Imagine the things that record holder must go without doing on a daily basis. Forget tying shoes or typing, I want to know how they manage to go to the bathroom.

    Mamihlapinatapai sounds awesome, and I want you to know that you wrote it often enough that I learned how to spell it. That magnificient reproduction back there isn’t a copy and paste cheat. As for why their culture had a need for that word, maybe they’re one of those traditional cultures that gives long pauses. I know that traditional Asian cultures see it as respectful to allow a long, thoughtful pause between speakers after a point has been made. This way everyone considers their thoughts before they speak.

    Oh god, leave it to the Germans to invent a word for a mug in need of a fist. And goodness, that #2 literally is “grief bacon.” That’s how I’m referring to bacon from now on.

    As regards Hygge, it’s a Danish word. One can presume it’s winter 8 months out of the year.

    And congratulations, you’re really being a zero to hero blogger!

    PS – I decided to look up any Norwegian phrases, seeing as that’s where my dad’s side of the family immigrated from. I found “utepils,” which means “to sit outside with a beer on a sunny day.” My people…

    I also found a lovely Swedish word: Gökotta. It means “to wake up early in the morning with the purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing.”

      1. I just love the sound of the language. I melt listening to Swedish films, for instance. Such a musical, rounded edges sort of language. That dialectical pattern is all over the upper Midwest. It always sounds happy to me, the way that people say Russian sounds like angry Klingon.

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