Le mot juste*

photo by Christine Fossaceca

photo by Christine Fossaceca

If you’ve ever hefted and carried an unabridged English dictionary around for a while, you know that we’ve got plenty of words to call upon when we speak or write. Out of idle curiosity, I thought I’d try to get a sense for just how many. I was thinking someone could give me an order-of-magnitude estimate–is it likely to be closer to fifty thousand, five hundred thousand or more?

It turns out that the Global Language Monitor is willing to supply me with a number that includes a decimal. According to the website, as of January 1, 2014, there were 1,025,109.8 words. Does the .8 represent a contraction, I wonder? Of course the number represents an estimate, and I’m sure the process used for estimating is more complicated than interesting, at least for our present purposes.

The point of considering the number of English words was simply to set the stage for contemplating a few things that English doesn’t have a word for, but that another language does. Below are four that caught my attention. They’re from a series that el Guapo forwarded from Twisted Sifter, selected from a series by Anjana Iyer, illustrating words collected by Adam Jacot de Boinod. As you can see, a bunch of us got together to expand your potential vocabulary today.



I was immediately drawn to this one, and am working on pronouncing it (can anyone help with Inuit?), because I thought that if what’s past is prologue, I’ll have a chance to use it in the future. If you ever find yourself wanting to hear a tale of a rendezvous frustrated, remind me to tell you about the sad travail of Lori and el Guapo trying to meet up after her last spring final in Harvard yard.



I’m assuming you can use this Spanish word without a note from your doctor–I don’t think it’s limited to a person with a medical condition like Raynaud’s syndrome. You’ll probably be fine using friolero† if you’re just cold-grouchy. One of Loquita’s contributions to this year’s collection of memorable family quotes was this: “I don’t understand why anyone would go anywhere on purpose where it snows.” Yes, we live in New England. And she’s hoping to go to college in Utah, where “the greatest snow on earth” features on license plates. I guess we’ll see how that goes.



I think it’s striking that this Japanese word is a kind of awareness, though of a very specific thing. And I think the color choices here are really interesting. And I think I’m mostly looking at those two in their bittersweetness and wondering how long before that bow breaks, and down will come slate-blue-haired-pair into whatever those funky angles represent.



Finally, I chose this one for a few reasons, none of which is that I’m interested in participating in one of these. El Guapo and I initiated our something many years ago, and intend to see it to its very end (or later–we’re hoping for the non-ending version◊). No, I chose this because the graphic was interesting, and because I hadn’t imagined there would be a single word for this specific scenario. The main reason, though, was that I hadn’t even heard of the language in which you can say that whole thing with a single word, even if it does have 16 letters.

The language Yagan, or Yaghan, takes us to the southernmost inhabited place on the globe, the tip of South America. Wikpedia tells us that the last speaker of the language is Cristina Calderón, age 86. Given the circumstances, it seems fairly unlikely that she’s going to have much use for mamihlapinatapei in future–with whom is she likely to have that sort of exchange?

Yaghan hales from those little islands just north of Antarctica.

Yaghan hales from those little islands at the end of Chile just north of Antarctica.

*le mot juste (with a question mark) is the French phrase that I winced to see in the margins of my freshman compositions–a signal that my instructor didn’t think I’d found exactly the right word.

†unless you’re in Mexico, where they don’t seem to go for either friolero or friolera (the feminine), but instead reportedly prefer friolento.

◊LDS temples are where Mormons go to get married without the “until death do you part” clause. We’re working on “for time and for all eternity.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s