In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World

by Christopher J. Moore

Published by Walker & Company

127 pages, 2004

Buy it online



Four Hundred Words for Snow?

Reviewed by H. V. Cordry


Proverbs, generally speaking, express wisdom of a kind so universal that a proverb found to have originated within a single culture might as easily have been produced by many other cultures and in almost any other period in history. Such is the commonality of human experience: the generalized common sense of one culture differs little, except in superficialities, from that of almost any other.

Yet for all the similarities in the life experiences of the world's cultures and ethnic groups, some find themselves at a loss for words with regard to certain of these experiences, and must look to other languages for le mot juste.

Imagine, for example, a man joining companions after work for a couple of beers before going home. As sometimes happens, he loses track of time and winds up spending the entire evening with them.

Dreading his wife's wrath, he decides to pick up some flowers on the way home to deflect her fury.

Though the situation is hardly unknown in English-speaking countries, there is no common expression in English to characterize his propitiatory gift. In German, however, there is one: drachenfutter, "dragon fodder," the offering a husband makes to his wife -- whom he imagines looming like a fire-breathing dragon at the cave entrance -- when he's stayed out late or engaged in some other form of inappropriate behavior.

Inclusion of the Japanese word makoto in this collection illustrates a second dimension of Christopher Moore's little book, for words themselves, like proverbs, serve to reveal the nature and character of the culture in which their meanings have developed. Makoto, as Moore explains, is often translated simply as "sincerity," but the Japanese use it in quite another way, emphasizing the speaker's concern for the feelings of his listeners.

Though the Russian word rodnye (rohd-nee-eh) usually refers to one's immediate family, it may also be used to include close friends with whom one has similar unconditional emotional ties, ties which are regarded as elements of one's identity.

Among the 250-plus words and phrases brought together in Christopher J. Moore's In Other Words is the "subtly delicious" Japanese phrase mono-no-aware, which Moore says describes the bittersweet feeling one experiences viewing the Kyoto cherry blossoms in April and knowing that their beauty, sadly, is transient and soon will fade.

Readers looking for Inuit words signifying different kinds of snow won't find them here. The Internet, however, offers lists of up to 400 Inuit snow words -- all of them bogus to their roots. The perpetrator's success in sucking in so many intelligent people derives from the plausibility of the proposition. Languages, after all, develop in response to a culture's needs and interests. Consider, for example, the hundreds of new words and new senses added to English in response to the developments in digital technologies.

Such needs also reflect the personality, so to speak, and the values of a culture. So if the French (or Germans or Norwegians) "have a word for it," when English does not, one may well ask why this should be true, and what their having it implies about them and about us. | January 2005


H. V. Cordry is a former professor and veteran journalist, now retired.