There was quite a response when the OED named ‘selfie’ as the 2013 word of the year. There was the usual flurry of indignation over how the Internet is ruining the English language, which, if you regularly read my blog, you know I don’t agree with. Like many of the linguists I know, I find language change to be both interesting and exhilarating. Linguists realize that language always has changed, and hopefully always will.
Sometimes words are created (like saying ‘lol’ instead of each individual letter, L-O-L) or given new tenses (like adding –ing to ‘friend’ to describe the act of connecting to someone on Facebook). Sometimes English borrows words wholesale from other languages (Schadenfreude, anyone?).
Which brings me to today’s main topic: Words for things or states of being that exist in other languages, but that don’t exist in English. My earlier use of ‘Schadenfreude’ is an example of this concept. In English, we can say ‘taking pleasure in another’s pain or suffering’ but we can’t say it using just one word. But people who speak German can—just as they can say ‘Kummerspeck’ to describe weight gained due to emotional eating. The best part? ‘Kummerspeck’ literally translates to ‘grief bacon’!
I encourage you to check out this fabulous list of words, compiled by Mental Floss, and to ponder why speakers of Georgian are lucky enough to have a single word to describe “the day after tomorrow” when English uses four, or why speakers of Italian felt the need to find a word to specifically describe those who are “addicted to the UV glow of tanning salons.” And then start getting creative! Maybe together, we can finally make ‘fetch’ happen!