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They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases (The Writer's Studio) Paperback – August 1, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Which came first: The worldview, or the words to describe it? Very possibly the latter, argues the author of They Have a Word for It. "Finding a name for something," says Howard Rheingold, "is a way of conjuring its existence." While collecting words for this book, Rheingold says he "became sympathetic to the idea that we think and behave the way we do in large part because we have words that make these thoughts and behaviors possible, acceptable, and useful." Rheingold's refusal to pull together words for entertainment value alone--though many of these words, and Rheingold's commentary on them, are highly entertaining--is what has given this book (previously out of print) a kind of cult following.

Hawaiian contributes a word (ho'oponopono) here that means "solving a problem by talking it out"; Japanese, a term (kyoikumama) for a "mother who pushes her children into academic achievement"; Indonesian, a word (kekaku) meaning "to awaken from a nightmare"; and Mayan (some things, it seems, are universal), a concise way to say "stupid in-laws" (bol). While it is the Asian and obscure linguistic groups that seem to come up with the most "powerful" ideas, German wins for packing a whole sentence's worth of meaning into one (albeit long) word. How much happier Strunk and White would rest if we could just say Torschlüsspanik when discussing "the frantic anxiety experienced by unmarried women as they race against the 'biological clock'"; Treppenwitz when referring to the "clever remark that comes to mind when it is too late to utter it"; and Schlimmbesserung when lamenting "a so-called improvement that makes things worse." --Jane Steinberg

From Publishers Weekly

Rheingold (Tools for Thought, Talking Tech) is neither a linguist nor a Fachidiot ("narrow-minded technical expert"). Instead, as an animateur ("a person who can communicate difficult concepts to general audiences"), he often interjects an occurencia ("witty remark") as he reveals the Elementargedanken ("elementary thoughts of mankind") throughout these informal and informative essays. Over 150 words in 40 languages (Italian, Yiddish, Sanskrit, Mayan, Sioux, Thai, Kiriwina) are arranged thematically (business, dreams, spirituality, technology, politics), and only a fewthe Haida potlatch, the French-Creole lagniappe, the German Katzenjammerhave a recognizable ring. His aim is to present genuinely useful (rather than simply odd) words, since they "mold thoughts." Because he writes with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject, this delightful, fascinating lexicon is likely to spread the words.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: The Writer's Studio
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Sarabande Books (August 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1889330469
  • ISBN-13: 978-1889330464
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,185,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Howard Rheingold is the author of:

Tools for Thought
The Virtual Community
Smart Mobs
Net Smart
Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind
Mind Amplifier


editor of Whole Earth Review

editor of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog

founding executive editor of Hotwired

founder of Electric Minds

Has taught:

Participatory Media and Collective Action (UC Berkeley, SIMS, Fall
2005, 2006, 2007 )

Virtual Community/Social Media (Stanford, Fall 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010; UC Berkeley,
Spring 2008, 2009)
Toward a Literacy of Cooperation (Stanford, Winter, 2005)

Digital Journalism (Stanford University Winter, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 )

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on July 6, 2003
Format: Paperback
How many times have you thought to yourself, 'I wish there were a word for this' ? Sometimes a feeling, sometimes an object, sometimes a description simply defies a simple one or two word construction, but rather involves lengthy comparison and development to get the point across, and often (particularly in conversation) doing such development leads away from the main topic of discussion.
Despite the vastness of the English vocabulary and the rich depth of heritage (a heritage strong on borrowing and adaptation), there are simply some things the English language lacks. I was reminded of this when writing a review on an archaeology book, in which the varying sense of history come through rather more clear in German than in English, where alternate words for history lose the historical sense.
This reminded me of the wonderful book by Howard Rheingold: They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases. Originally published in 1988, it is now back in print, and was a recent selection in one of the book clubs to which I am an over-subscriber. Rheingold is the author of many books, many on topics of technology, creativity, and intelligence. Perhaps he is best known for The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1994.
`This book is meant to be fun. Open it at random and see if you don't find something that will amuse you, entertain you, titillate your curiosity, tickle your perspective. But you should know that reading this book might have serious side effects at a deeper level. Even if you read one page as you stand in a bookstore, you are likely to find a custom or an idea that could change the way you think about the world. It has to do with the insidious way words mold thoughts.' Indeed, this is true.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By audrey pierce TOP 500 REVIEWER on March 10, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is a lot of fun and well put together. Approximately 150 foreign words and phrases are divided into 11 sections, including family, business, politics, beauty, psychology, love, etc. One or two pages are used to describe each word, giving the pronunciation as well as its use in the native tongue and applicability to English. Words are taken primarily from the Romance languages -- French, Italian and Spanish -- but also from Chinese, Japanese, Navajo, Sanskrit, Bantu and at least a dozen others.
There is an interesting introduction, a bibliography and an index.
In the introduction the author mentions that he culled these samples from a list of hundreds; this might be an instance where an accompanying web site giving all of the words considered might be a lot of fun and very useful.
Highly recommended.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Douglas C. Shaker on November 15, 2002
Format: Paperback
Rheingold (the editor of one of the editions of the Whole Earth Catalog) likes to collect unusual words from other languages.
Some of the words are useful: e.g. "attaccabottoni" for someone who grabs the conversation and won't let you go.
Or "Korinthenkacker" (literally "raisin crapper") for a boss that obsesses on insignificant details.
Some of the words are hilarious: e.g. "buritilulo" for the New Guinea highlands practice of comparing yams to settle a dispute. I imagine two folks standing next to a pile of root vegetables, one saying to the other "Ah! Your yams are incredible! I concede!"
And some of the words just seem to be good to know about:
"mokita" for the truth everybody knows but nobody speaks;
"razbliuto" for the feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but now does not.
Anyway, I loved it. Do I use the words? No. But it think it is amazing how many strange and wonderful concepts humans have honored with their own words.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Douglas E. Welch on April 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
I love languages. Each one has their own words and phrases that are entirely untranslatable without several sentences of explanation. As I have learned Italian over the last few years (in order to converse with my wife's relatives) I have found certain phrases in English that just don't translate into Italian directly. Now the tables are turned, as this book provides me with some Italian phrases that have a much deep meaning than might be imagined.
The author, Howard Rheingold, has collected words for a lot of different languages, including Chinese, Hindi, Italian, French and even Hawaiian. In fact, one of my favorites comes from that language. ho'oponopono (HO-OH-poh-no-poh-no). It means "solving a problem by talking it out", something that I do on a regular basis (even if I am only talking to myself!)
Italian gives us attaccabottoni ("a doleful bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless tales.") I have run into a few of these in my life, so it is nice to have a new word with which to reference them. (SMILE)
Each time I flip through the book I find more and more interesting words. Rheingold encourages you to start using the words in your vocabulary and I think I just might try. That way, the next time a friend bangs his or her thumb with a hammer you can reply "uffda", a Swedish "word of sympathy, used when someone else is in pain."
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Occupational Therapist on March 6, 2001
Format: Paperback
I'm orderinga second copy of this book because I'm about to wear mine out. This book is full of weird words like kora, the hysterical belief that one's penis is shrinking and mbuki-mvuki, to shuck off clothes in order to dance. I mean, how many times do you want to describe that feeling and just cant come up with a word? Well, this book has them. We often give out awards where we name folks the most likely to Mbuki-Mvuki and so on -- they're a riot. Anyway, I love the book.
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