What began as a fortuitous discovery, when BBC researcher Adam Jacot de Boinod noticed that an Albanian dictionary contained 27 different words each for eyebrows and mustache, has become, after his obsessive 18-month journey through hundreds of foreign dictionaries, a very funny and genuinely informative guide to the world’s strangest–and most useful–words. There are many books out there that invent, Sniglets-style, the words that the English language doesn’t have but needs. What The Meaning of Tingo shows is that, like natural cures waiting to be found in the plants of the rainforest, many of the words already exist, in the languages of the world’s other cultures. Who couldn’t find a use for “neko-neko,” an Indonesian word for “one who has a creative idea which only makes things worse,” or “skeinkjari,” a term from the Faroe Islands for “the man who goes among wedding guests offering them alcohol”? Some words that Jacot de Boinod has found are bizarre–“koro,” the “hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking into one’s body” in Japanese–while others are surprisingly affecting, like the Inuit word “iktsuarpok,” which means “to go outside often to see if someone is coming.” And then there’s “tingo” itself, from the Pascuense language of Easter Island: “to take all the objects one desires from the house of a friend, one at a time, by borrowing them.”
The Man Who Swallowed 200 Dictionaries
There is no word (that we know of) to describe someone who spends a year and half of their life poring through a library’s worth of dictionaries in hundreds of languages, but that’s exactly what Adam Jacot de Boinod did after a chance encounter with a heavy Albanian dictionary. Listen to our interview with the author to hear just how he got started on this strange but fruitful journey, and what he hopes might be the usefulness of his light-hearted book in making us aware of the cultural riches in danger of being lost as the world’s living languages become extinct nearly as quickly as its species.
The Meaning of Tingo Language Learning Lab
Adam Jacot de Boinod has chosen a handful of his own favorite words from The Meaning of Tingo Click here to hear him pronounce and define the words, and start slipping them into conversation today!
nakhur, Persian a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils are tickled
areodjarekput, Inuit to exchange wives for a few days only
marilopotes, ancient Greek a gulper of coaldust
ilunga, Tshiluba, Congo someone who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time
cigerci, Turkish a seller of liver and lungs
seigneur-terrasse, French a person who spends much time but little money in a cafe (literally: a terrace lord)
Torschlusspanik, German the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older (literally: gate-closing panic; often applied to women worried about being too old to have children.)
pana po’o, Hawaiian to scratch your head in order to remember something
waterponie, Afrikaans jet ski
If you have ever been bothered by neighbors dropping by at mealtimes when you don’t have time to cook for more people and don’t want to make conversation, then you have to feel for the Scots. They’ve been so put out by mealtime visitors that they found a world to describe this practice of dropping by: giomlaireachd.
People being what they are, Scotland is not the only country to have its share of boorish individuals. The French, for instance, have seigneur-terraces, café customers who spend a lot of time at a table but little money, and Indonesians put up with mencomot, people who steal objects of small value for fun.
This is only a glimpse into the world of expressions that can be found in some languages but have no equivalent in others. Throughout the years, people have found different words to express their experiences, which are sometimes so specific to their culture that they exist only in their country.
Malaysians have a word — rejam — for an execution technique that consists of smothering the victim’s face in the mud, while the Japanese have gusa, or decapitation by sword. Iranians have nakhur to describe a camel that won’t give milk until someone tickles her nostrils.
Some expressions are baffling. Why in the world would people ever smoke cigarettes with the lit end in their mouths, or bakwe, a word used in the Philippines to describe the practice? And why would this occur so often that there is a word for it?
It took Jacot de Boinod a year to consult the 280 dictionaries, 140 books and Web sites he needed to compile the words that, as he says, “tickled his mind — the bizarre ones and the downright amusing.”
“Why do the Albanians need 27 words to describe a mustache?” asks the author, still bewildered by his own findings. “Some words are simply incomprehensible from our perspective.”
In case you wondered, tingo is a Pascuente word from Easter Island in the South Pacific. It means to borrow things from a friend’s house, object by object, until there’s nothing left in it.
What an iant* thing to do!
*Serbian: an attitude of proud defiance, stubbornness and self-preservation to the detriment of everyone else.