The Meaning of Tingo

by Adam Jacot de Boinod

December 12, 2008

Isn't schadenfreude a great word? (It's German and it means "taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others".) There's nothing like it in the English language, and so we sometimes use it. There are lots of foreign words that are in occasional use among Americans. Another is German Weltanschaung, which means something like "world view", but really encompasses a much larger idea: the entire context of our thinking. Another German word I like is Schwerpunkt, meaning "point of maximum effort or attention". If you keep your eyes on the ball, then the ball is the Schwerpunkt.

There are so many French words that have entered our vocabulary that it's impossible to list them all. Those sneaky French have been smuggling their words into our language since William the Conquerer; sadly, our attempts at compensation only anger the French Academy (although the French people do seem to take a shine to some of our words).

Then there are all the foreign words that have entered our vocabulary that most people don't even know about, words like taboo or bungalow (hint: Bangladesh). Again, there are gobs of these words.

But this book is not about foreign words that have been integrated into English; this book is about interesting foreign words. Many are interesting because they express an idea that we all know, but don't have a word for. The clearest example is the word in the title: tingo. It's a word in the Rapa Nui language (spoken on Easter Island) that means "borrowing somebody's possessions one at a time until you own everything you want". That's a word that we could use in these parts. Or how about Polish
fucha, to use company time and resources for personal purposes? That's a word we could use often. The Fuegans in southern Chile have a word mamihlapinatapei, which describes the shared expression of loving longing when both boy and girl realize that they are made for each other, but each is hoping that the other will make the first move. How many times have you been caught in that situation? Wouldn't it be nice to just go over to the other person and break the ice by saying, "You look so mamihlapinatapei!" And the Germans have a great word for the other end of romance: Einfuhlung, a shared understanding so profound that each partner instantly knows the feelings and thoughts of the other. Or how about the Farsi (Persian) word ghiqq, the sound made by a boiling pot, or the Yindiny (Australia) word nyangi, an annoying noise? "Kids, if you don't cut out that nyangi, I'm coming in the room!"

On the other hand, there are some words that express ideas rather alien to our culture: Inuit
areodjarekput: to wife-swap with another man for a few days only. Orio is a Khakas (Siberian) word for a hole in a yurt used to store potatoes. Not something I'm likely to have anytime soon.

Then there are words that express ideas we already have in our language, but do so in delightful ways: the Danish word for pogo stick is
kaengurustylte. You can figure it out by pronouncing it aloud. (hint: pronounce the 'y' like the 'i' in 'big'). The Germans have another winner with eine Kroete schlucken, which literally means "to swallow a toad", but actually means "to make a grudging concession".

Everybody's different, and every culture has some weird words that express -- well, nothing in particular, but we all know what they mean. One example from American English is
anyway (that was all very interesting but let's change the subject). In the Zarma language of Nigeria they say hay kulu, which means "anything, nothing, and everything". Romani say merripen for "life and death".

There are also plenty of truly oddball words that assault our sense of what a word is. The Estonian word for the edge of a fence surrounding a yard is
oueaiaaare. Not enough consonants? OK, how about odctvrtvrstvit, a Czech verb for removing a quarter of a layer. The Czechs and Estonians ought to arrange some sort of trade deal; they'd both profit enormously from it. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all have places called "A", and Alaska and France both have a place called "Y". I suppose you would probably get into trouble asking for directions to these places. And good luck looking them up on Google Earth.

Do you recall the old saw about the Eskimos (who prefer to be called Inuit, by the way;
Eskimo is to them as guilo is the Westerners in China) having a zillion words for snow and ice? Well, they do, it turns out: words for snow that's crunchy on top but soft underneath; snow that's falling as opposed to snow that's already on the ground; fresh snow versus settled snow, even a word for snow that's ideal for making an igloo. That idea of people having a lot of words for things that are important to them applies in a lot of places. The Hawaiian language has 47 words for bananas and 108 words for sweet potatoes. They didn't have a lot of gustatory variety in those days. The Albanians have 27 words for mustaches, and the Kunwinjku of Australia have a number of different words to describe the exact kind of hopping that they observe in kangaroos and wallabies.

This is but a sampling of the many weird words people have coined.