In his book On The Life and Death of Languages, linguist Claude Hagège talks about Pomo, an Amerindian language spoken in Northern California. This language has a verb which means ‘to suddenly introduce words into a song that one was in the process of humming’, and another which translates as ‘to make one’s biscuits go down with coffee or tea’.
Whether or not we should give too much credence to this or similar claims (more on this in future blog entries), these examples highlight one of the great charms of learning languages: the discovery of words which have no precise equivalent in your first language.
MacAlpine’s Gaelic Dictionary, published in 1833, features many gems in this genre:
Brochanach – well supplied with porridge.
Caoir – a foam with sparks of fire in it.
Ceabhar – a slight or gentle breeze; the state of being slightly intoxicated.
Leadan – a little pretty head of hair; a note in music; the herb teazle.
Mearrachdas – wantonness, indelicate romping, nearly wanton joy.
Mithlusarachd – coldness of manner; uncomfortableness as clothes.
Sgiomlaireachd – mean habit of popping in upon people at mealtimes; living and doing nothing about gentlemen’s kitchens.
Sgiunach – a charm or enchantment to enable its possessors to get all the fish around a boat or headland while less fortunate neighbours stare with amazement; amulet to excel in anything; a shameless, bold woman.
Spairis – the conduct or attitude of having the hands in the flaps of the trousers.
Spliug – a blubber-lipped person’s mouth, a most unmanly physiognomy.
And bonus marks for anyone who can explain what is meant by this curious paragraph, the only entry under the letter ‘H,h’:
H, h, this letter is not acknowledged in our Alphabet; but to keep the Gaelic in character with us, the Highlanders, who are THE BRAVEST and most singular people in the WHOLE WORLD, it is used, not only in every word, but almost in every syllable expressed or understood.
At the other end of the spectrum from this level of semantic precision, we find the phenomenon known in Arabic as al-Ishtiraak (literally ‘sharing’, ‘association’). Arabic words, famously, often combine disparate if not contradictory meanings. The word saleem, for example, means both one who is cured and one who has just been bitten by a snake, whilst baseer can refer to one with great sight and insight, but also means blind.
The most famous case of al-Ishtiraak is the word al-‘ayn العين. Lexicologists differ on precisely how many meanings this word has; medieval lexiconographer al-Fayroozabaadi asserts that it has 47 meanings, while Muhammad al-Fasee said in his Annotations on the Qaamoos that it has over 100 meanings, and 17 of them appear in the Qur’an. According to him, among its meanings are the eye, the spring [of water], the hollow of the knee, the ballista, and buds of plants.