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July 22, 2001 - 'They Have a Word For It' - 2002-01-31

INTRO: Hollywood and popular music have spread American culture and its special words around the world. Cool! Yet Americans are largely unfamiliar with many of the wonderful words spoken by non-English speaking cultures. Each culture offers words that convey concepts, often without an exact equivalent in American English.

Sioux American Indians, for example, speak of 'wistelikiya"[PRON: WIH'stell ih KIE' yuh] meaning "the sexual awkwardness that can arise between relatives" and Yiddish speaking Jews say "farpotshket" [PRON: fahr POTs' SKEHT] to describe something that is all fouled up, especially as a result of trying to fix it.

Social commentator Howard Rheingold has compiled examples into a book. It's called "They Have a Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases." VOA's Adam Phillips interviewed Mr. Rheingold at his California home.


TEXT: Howard Rheingold glances up from his oversized computer screen. It's the most familiar object among many, mostly foreign, curios that fill his colorful home office. As a freelance writer, Mr. Rheingold has authored several books and countless magazine articles. Still, he feels special affection for his published compendium of strange -- and strangely useful non-English words.


"There are many words that are not easily translatable from one culture to another and I think that those words are contributions to the world's culture from that particular national group…. People who speak more than one language understand that a language is more than a code form communicating words. It's really a way of seeing the world."

TEXT: Some foreign words have made their way into English and with their original pronunciation intact. Not surprisingly, many of these originated in Europe.


Most people have a grandmother or grandfather who said words from the old country that have become part of English that really don't have a direct English translation.

'Schadenfreude' is an example of a German word that has to do with the joy we get at seeing the misfortunes of others. Why do we laugh when someone slips on a banana peel?

There is a[nother] word that became very important to physicists that comes from the German. 'Gedanken' experiment. A gedanken experiment is not one that takes place in the laboratory. It takes place in your mind. It's a thought experiment. And, in fact, a lot of the theory of relativity came from Einstein thinking about what it would be like to ride on a light wave and look behind you. What would you see? Relativity [Theory] really came from that thought experiment.

There is a French phrase 'l'esprit de l'escalier" 'the spirit of the staircase.' It's the witty rejoinder you always think of on the staircase as you're leaving the party."

TEXT: Many of the offerings in Mr. Rheingold's book are imported from the Southern Hemisphere.


"There is a word from New Guinea called 'mokita' which is the truth that everybody knows about but nobody speaks. An open secret. Everybody knows that So and So is fooling around with So and So. But nobody talks about it.

What about 'mamihlapinatapei' which is a word from the Tierro del Fuegan language [which means] 'a meaningful look shared by two people expressing mutual unstated feelings.' It might be two people in love Romeo and Juliet across the room. Or it could be two enemies across a battlefield who are about to bayonet each other."

TEXT: During his research, Mr. Rheingold discovered several words that convey a culture's sense of the beautiful. The Japanese, for example, have an especially rich vocabulary to express the artistic side of life.


"The Japanese word 'wabi' that has to do with a certain kind of beauty that generally Americans have not appreciated as much. It's the kind of beauty of a pot that has a crack in it. Maybe the beauty of the Liberty Bell.

"'Sabi.' One word to describe it is 'beautiful patina.' It's something that accumulates with age that is beautiful.

"Another kind of beauty called 'shibui' that can only come from aging. Now that can apply to a piece of wood that only becomes beautiful after two hundred years. It can also apply to the lines on an old woman's face."

TEXT: Howard Rheingold explains why he believes Japanese has such words and English does not.


"Japanese culture is an older culture and old people are valued there. Now we worship a youth culture in America, and we also like the modern. So neither 'wabi' or 'sabi' are part of the English language."

TEXT: Mr. Rheingold says that he wrote "They Have a Word For It" to help Americans appreciate the unique perspectives of other cultures through their words.



"I think the dominant way of seeing the world, because of our technology and our economic success, ** has been the American way over the last fifty years. And we are now moving into much more of a global era. And it would help to understand that people see the world differently."

TEXT: Howard Rheingold is the author of "They Have a Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases" and several other books, including "Tools for the Mind," "Virtual Reality," and "The Virtual Community."