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'The Meaning of Tingo': One Man's Favorite Words, From 254 Languages

Welcome to Wordmaster. I’m Adam Phillips, filling in for Avi Arditti and Roseanne Skirble. This week, we hear from a Londoner whose special love is the quirky words found in languages other than English. His name is Adam Jacot de Boinod, and he has collected his favorite words from 254 languages in a new book.

JACOT DE BOINOD: “It’s called 'The Meaning of Tingo' and it’s about all the world’s most extraordinary, telling, thought-provoking, culturally informative, funny, wacky and bizarre words. TINGO itself is from Easter Island, and it means to borrow objects from a friend’s home one-by-one until there is nothing left."

Jacod de Boinod’s fascination with exotic words began innocently enough when he was working for a BBC television quiz show. It was one of his jobs to find strange and unusual words.

JACOT DE BOINOD: “I picked up, just out of sheer curiosity, an eleven hundred page Albanian to English dictionary, and found within minutes that there were 27 words for moustache and 27 words for eyebrow. And so I thought what a treasure trove! Indeed, I would go as far as to claim that if you get hold of a really authoritative, massive dictionary of a really exotic place, you’ll find out more from that than you will from the vast majority of guidebooks about the culture.”

As he pored through the 220 or so foreign-language dictionaries to compile his “Tingo” book, Jacot de Boinod says it wasn’t hard to spot the “keepers” among the tens of thousands of interesting words:

JACOT DE BOINOD: “Like NAKHUR, a six letter Persian word meaning a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils are tickled. GURFUR is a uniquely telling word. It’s an Arabic word and it means the amount of water scooped up with one hand. And then of course Hawaiian is just a godsend because it’s got OHKULLANOCKANOCKA, meaning a day spent in nervous anticipation of a coughing spell."

Some of the words in “The Meaning of Tingo” are culture-specific. Most Americans do not need the 108 words Hawaiians have for different types of sweet potato, or the 29 words the Banuit Tribe of Brazil uses for ants.

JACOT DE BOINOD: “But there are all sorts of words that do belong to a universal condition or sensation or sentiment. Like ZECHPRELLER, the German word for someone who leaves without paying the bill. I love TORSCHLUSSPANIK, a German word for the fear of diminishing opportunities, and it applies in particular to women in their mid-30s concerned that they may not have time to have babies and so on. And I love NEKO-NEKO, which is an Indonesian word for someone who has a creative idea which only makes things worse.”

Or BAKU-SHAN, the Japanese word for a woman who appears beautiful when seen from behind, but not from the front, or the Yiddish words SHMUGEGGESHNORRER, PASKUDNIK or YOLD, all of which mean “loser.” But Jacot de Boinod seems especially fond of words that describe distinctly local customs or occupations.

JACOT DE BOINOD: “I am very fond of AREODJAREKPUT, an Inuit word meaning to exchange wives for a few days only. And CIGERCI, a Turkish word for a seller of livers and lungs. It tells us what a great diversity there is in this world and we should be celebrating that diversity. This comes at a time when languages are dying out at the rate of one every two weeks [and] we really should be doing our best to make them prosper and flourish and survive. And we should be embracing the joy, the glory, the wonder of foreign words and expressions.”

Many words in Jacot de Boinod’s book seem like pure poetry.

JACOT DE BOINOD: “I love the word MEHRS [as heard]. It’s a Persian word meaning looking beautiful after a disease. But in my experience, of the most uniquely exciting languages, one is Japanese. It has MUKAMUKA meaning one is so angry one feels like throwing up -- but also Malay, or Indonesian which has some wonderful words to describe physical action and methods of moving which we don’t begin to attempt. Like KONTAL-KONTIL, the swinging of long earrings, or the flaying of one’s dress as one walks. [Or] BONGKING, sprawling face down with your bottom in the air."

There are several words from Native American languages in “The Meaning of Tingo” that can offer insight into how these cultures come to view other cultures and what they produce.

JACOT DE BOINOD: "Words like Hopi, for instance, which has MASA’YTAKA, and it’s a word meaning insects or airplanes or pilots – in fact, anything that flies, except birds. And Apache is a very interesting dictionary to delve into because it corresponds parts of the body with parts of automobiles. So the front bumper is DAW, meaning chin or jaw, the front fender is WOS for shoulder, the chassis is CHUN or back, and so on.

“And the metaphorical naming continues inside the car as well. So you have TSAWS is the electrical wiring, meaning the 'veins’; and ZIK is the 'liver,' meaning the battery; and PITT is the 'stomach,' meaning the petrol tank; and so on."

Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of “The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World,” published by Penguin Press. To find more exotic words and what they mean, go online and visit For Wordmaster, this is Adam Phillips.