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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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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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. The old dictum, 'don't think about elephants', is very true for this book. Each page will cause you think and ponder beyond the box of the English language.
Given Rheingold's technological interests, part of this book was researched, assembled, and created on early computer bulletin board services (BBS), which yielded for Rheingold both new friendships as well as interesting contributions of untranslatable words. Rheingold offered dinner to contributors of valuable additions. `Thinking about the right kind of untranslatable words creates a certain state of mind. I found myself looking at the mundane elements of everyday life through a new kind of lens, which revealed to me dimensions in my familiar environment that I simply had not seen before because I hand't known how to look.'
Words define who we are and how we see the word. Whether one lives in a literate society or not, whether one has other forms of intelligence (see Gardner's `Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences') such as musical, mathematical, etc., the way people are socialised and educated in most every society since the advent of language has been in terms of language, both oral and written. Humans have striven to put things into ever more precise and meaningful yet full and adaptable language.
Rheingold breaks his analysis of untranslatable words into the following categories:
- Human Family Affairs: People Words
- You Are What You Say: Words of Power
- Dance of the Sexes: Men, Women, and the Words Between Them
- The Eye of the Beholder: Conceptions of Beauty
- Serious Business: Words About Work and Money
- States of Mind: Words, Thoughts, and Beyond
- Life Is But a Dream: The Jargon of Mental Technologists
- Spiritual Pathwords: The Map, the Territory, and the Mystery
- The Body Politic: Words and Social Action
- Toolwords: Technology and Worldviews
- Strange Memes: Language Viruses
English speakers have long been familiar with words such as Tao, a Chinese concept that means many things such as 'the way', 'the process', etc., or Shalom, the Hebrew multiple-purpose word for peace, greeting, parting, etc. Religion has had enough trouble being put into words in any language to be clearly articulated in any given one (hence the problems of translation and explanation from texts in one language to cultures in another). Perhaps it will be part of your dharma to understand more of these concepts, in and beyond English.
There are interesting ideas here, that English would find very useful. Drachenfutter, a word from the German, roughly means 'a peace offering from guilty husbands for wives'. More literally meaning 'dragon fodder' (not an image most wives would be happy to be associated with, if indeed the 'dragon' refers to the wife), it has been a rather common idea in Germanic cultures in the past. The Russian word razbliuto in essence stands for the feeling (not quite of love, but perhaps close) that a person has for someone once loved but now longer the object of affection.
This is a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening work, that will give hours of pleasure and can spark many conversations, untranslatable though they may be! With interesting words from every continent and many historical periods, this will broaden your perspective of the ways in which people have seen the world and communicated their understandings of the world to others. `If you want to change the way people think, you can educate them, brainwash them, bribe them, drug them. Or you can teach them a few carefully chosen new words.'
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."
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Some of the words are useful: e.g.Read more