Oct. 12, 2006 — -- 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.
The pleasure of stumbling upon these expressions when learning a new language or visiting a foreign country is great but rare.
Thankfully, Adam Jacot de Boinod has worked it out for us. In "The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World," which was recently published in the United States, he compiles unique expressions rooted as much in ancient Greek as modern slang, that help us measure the gap between our different customs and cultures.
Americans, well known workaholics, don't have a word to describe death from overwork, which is karoshi in Japanese. Neither do they have a word to mean setting up one's wife as a stake in gambling -- pu'ukaula in Hawaiian.
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.