No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

#93: The Meaning of Tingo -- Adam Jacot de Boinod

This book has been much promoted lately: I bought it because it sounded rather like They Have a Word for It -- Howard Rheingold. Yes and no. Both authors share a fascination for weird and wonderful words, but Rheingold is more interested in discussing the concepts and finding potential uses in everyday (American) life: de Boinod includes many more words, but usually in simple definition lists. Though not always ...

Example: mamihlapinatapei
"...from the Fuegian language found in Chile, meaning that shared look of longing where both parties know the score yet neither is willing to make the first move." (The Meaning of Tingo, p. 64)

"The Guinness Book of World Records lists this as 'the most succinct word' and defines it as 'the act of looking into each other's eyes, each hoping that the other will initiate what both want to do but neither chooses to commence'. Whether this is the most succinct word in the world is arguable, but there is no doubt that the word describes a relatively rare sensation that just about everyone experiences at some point in life. The eye is both the window of the soul sand the primary erogenous zone; our species was exchanging meaningful glances long before we started compiling lexicons. And anyone who has ever fallen in love or out of love knows that the word can apply equally well to any of these tension-laden situations.
"And here is the answer to precisely what one says in such a situation: by the very nature of the encounter, it is impossible simply to ask whether the other person has in mind precisely what you have in mind. But you could always ask if you have both just engaged in a moment of mamihlapinatapei, and thus approach the matter indirectly. If you want to be suave about it, you had better spend some time practising your pronunciation before you actually try this on someone. Since it is highly unlikely that a Tierra del Fuegan will be around to correct you, it is probably better for you to make up your own pronunciation." (They Have a Word for It, p. 80)

Actually, a surprising number of Rheingold's words appear in The Meaning of Tingo, often with very similarly-worded definitions that, no doubt, indicate a shared source: I'm surprised that de Boinod hasn't (as far as one can tell from the references) encountered the earlier book.

The Meaning of Tingo is a fascinating book. There are plenty of concepts that don't have clear formulations in English, though whether they need them (geragas, Malayan for 'to comb one's hair in anger') is a moot point. Interesting to see some of the distinctions drawn in other cultures -- there are languages which divide the colours of the rainbow quite differently, and of course there are all those Eskimo Inuit words for snow -- and to think about the world view they imply. (If you don't have a word for something, how do you think about it?)

I think I prefer Rheingold's approach, but there are so many more words in de Boinod's compendium. Though none of them relates to something that I'm sure some language must have a word for: the moon seen by day.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

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