In Gillian Flynn’s disturbing (but amazing) first novel, Sharp Objects, the main character’s body is covered in scars the shapes of words. Whenever she finds herself in a stressful or agitating situation, those scars will, like the most powerful mosquito bites, begin to itch in a very unappeasable way. She can almost feel them coming out of her skin, becoming something more than just a place she carved out letters many years before—coming alive, in a way.
While this is tremendously disconcerting, I think that besides the author’s clever display of this character’s massive issues (and, if you read the book, you will think that for what the girl went through this handicap is quite minor), Flynn is also trying to say something about the power of words: a word in just the right place (in this case, literally seared into an upper thigh, a hip); or, more importantly, the right word (i.e. lonely vs. lonesome) in the right place.
But what if that word that you’re looking for doesn’t exist at all?
A plethora of articles have been written recently addressing untranslatable words from various languages. Indonesia brings us jayus; a joke that is so unfunny and told so poorly that you can’t help but laugh (think: Dad jokes). Scotland has a word so outlandish that it’s practically onomatopoeia—tartle: the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name. There’s a term in Hebrew, ani ho-le aleha, that means literally “sick on you” – a very accurate description, similar to lovesickness, of that giddy, obsessed feeling you get when you’ve just met someone and they are all you can think about. Norwegian has this feeling too, though the more optimistic side of it: forelsket, the euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love. Then, there are words that seem to not exist in English just because of the rarity of needing the term at all, like the Korean word nunchi, the subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood in order to know the appropriate thing to say. Or the Japanese term yoko meshi: “literally ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language.” I feel this every time I need to speak Russian to my non-English-speaking relatives. Though, I think a better term to find or create in regards to this phenomena would describe the frustration of not being able to get things across during a foreign-language conversation; or, to be even more particular, what about a word for the disarray of a multi-lingual conversation? Whenever I visit Israel with my (Israeli) fiancé, for example, and we are having dinner with my Russian relatives, who speak both Hebrew and Russian but not English, the conversation that ensues would befuddle even the most educated of passersby—even those who happen to speak all three languages (in Israel, it is actually quite common to speak at least two of the three).
Probably one of the most well-known untranslatable words is the German word schadenfreude, meaning to derive pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. While German would be a very appropriate origin of this word, especially if it came from the World War II-era, ironically, it comes from a Hebrew word—from the Bible, in fact. On the opposite end of that is the Mexican Spanish word, pena ajena, which is the embarrassment you feel on someone else’s behalf; i.e. Steve Urkel, Screech, anyone at an open-mic—for me, this happens the most when someone asks me to read something they’ve written and it’s terrible.
Pei-Ying Lin, who recently designed a map of untranslatable words, takes it a step further, by attempting to address what we don’t yet have words for at all. Between lust and shame, she maps a word made necessary by the Internet age; something to describe the “car collision of appetite and discomfort one feels when using the Internet to seek and consume images or information that may be considered unseemly or inappropriate” (for example, porn, obviously, but also sites like perezhilton.com, Texts from Last Night, or any entertainment magazine’s online equivalent).
I like this idea. Words are so precise and emotions, often, are not. I wonder what other vague, even taboo, feelings are out there without any linguistic equivalent. What about a word akin to nationalism, but about your family? Why is it that even if we don’t like a member of our family we still feel it necessary to stick up for them, as if they are an extension of ourselves? Or even if we do like them; why do we need to apologize for the behavior of a spouse or sibling who has acted inappropriately? Come to think of it, why isn’t there a word for obligatory love—the love you are required to have for people that you are related to?
If any word needs more synonyms, it’s love. Like Janet Fitch writes in White Oleander: “Love. I would ban the word from the vocabulary. Such imprecision. Love, which love, what love? Sentiment, fantasy, longing, lust? Obsession, devouring need?” People use the word love for so many things the word is both meaningless and too heavy with meaning. We love some months more than others, we love weather; we love members of sports teams whom we’ve never met; we love coffee and cake and brown leather boots. We love people we’ve just met and will likely never see again; we love running or biking or video games. We love Europe. We even love digitally, by clicking a button on Facebook. I think it’s about time to copy our neighbors to the north—Canada’s Nunavik region has fifty-three words for snow. So why not have fifty words for love?
Not only Canadians have this multiplicity of terms. The Sami language of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, has around 180 snow-and-ice related words. Central Siberia has forty words for snow-like weather, and in the Inupiaq dialect of Wales, Alaska, there are about seventy terms for ice: “utuqaq,” ice that lasts year after year; “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of ice crystals that form as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese. Replace the word ‘ice’ with ‘love’ and it makes perfect sense to adopt these words as our own! They’d be much more accurate than the very general term “love.”
And what about that feeling when love ends? The moment you start to understand that it won’t work out with your significant other (or, even more contradictory, when you know it’s over but you stay with them anyway)? There’s also that great ambivalent emotion you often feel when you’ve been dumped or wronged by someone—Jeannette Winterson explains it best in The Passion: “I didn’t know what hate felt like, not the hate that comes after love. It’s huge and desperate and it longs to be proved wrong. And every day it’s proved right it grows a little more monstrous.”
This is part of why I love reading so much. When you don’t have a word for something, and you read something that strikes with you so personally, it’s almost like the feeling is validated. It’s no longer this vague sensation you can’t quite put your finger on—it’s a real thing, look, someone is going through the same thing on paper. Books, ironically, are the alternative to words—a sentence, a passage, or even an entire book will explain something that not one word can.
Or, paradoxically, you may need an entire book just to explain one word! Vladimir Nabokov does a pretty good job of attempting to translate another popular untranslatable word, toska, that comes out of Russia—and if you’ve ever read any Russian classics, or been to Russia, it will make perfect sense to you: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
Perhaps, even in its vagueness, this word is the easiest to understand, no matter what language you speak. Because everyone has their own antidote for their particular embodiment of toska, whether or not they acknowledge it as such; endless to-do lists, hobbies of every variety, work, children, friends, shoes, football, food—love. Or, in some cases, words—even if they aren’t always the right ones.