"Grief-Bacon" and Other Great Words with No English Equivalent
Sometimes single words contain whole worlds. Here are some of the best.
Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, spends all day reading citations and trying to define words like “Monophysite” and “bodice ripper.” She has been doing this sort of thing since 1998, long enough to remember blue galleys, grease pencils, rubber stamps, and inter-office mail. Most recently, she’s gained some notoriety for being one of three editors who write, edit, and appear in the “Ask the Editor” video series. (Pursuant to the video series: yes, her hair changes colors, and no, she will not marry you). In addition to working on definitions and (patiently, steadfastly) answering the editorial email, she sometimes travels around the country giving talks and lectures on things that only other word nerds would be interested in.
When she is not doing the word-nerd thing, she does other nerdy things, including knitting, baking, and live sound engineering. But she will probably not bore you to death with those things here.
You can read more of Kory’s blabbing on the Merriam-Webster blog and in the Guardian, where British commentors endlessly complain on every column she has written there. She also occasionally contributes to Strong Language, a blog about foul language.
Her debut nonfiction book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published in March 2017. Publishers Weekly called it “occasionally profane,” which is delightful. She’s working on another nonfiction book for Pantheon/Knopf, and that will also likely be occasionally profane.
Kory Stamper: So one of the things you need to be a lexicographer is something called sprachgefühl, which is a word we stole from German, and it means “a feeling for language”.
So sprachgefühl is the thing that tells you, for instance, that the sentence “the cat are yowling” is grammatically wrong, but “the crowd are loving it” is just very British.
And so sprachgefühl is a great word because the Germans have words for everything. And so we stole sprachgefühl, in with a bunch of other German words that also describe these things that it’s just great to have one word for.
So one word that German has that describes this great thing we don’t necessarily have a word for in English, the German word is kummerspeck and it refers—it’s a word for flab, like the weight that you gain. But the words literally mean “grief bacon” in German. And so grief bacon is the sadness you feel at having all this flab. So kummerspeck is one.
Let me think. There’s a Danish word, “hygge” I think is how you say it. H – Y – G – G – E, which refers to the coziness of home. We don’t have that in English, but hygge is also this very broad cultural phenomenon. So hand-knit socks are hygge and fireplaces are hygge.
Another word is—it’s a Finnish word, from Finland—and it’s “sisu.” Sisu sort of generally refers to determination. But determination doesn’t quite capture it. It’s a spirit of determination and sort of quiet—sisu is sort of like determination, or the best that I could possibly come up with is “piss and vinegar,” but in a very quiet and Scandinavian way.
The Oxford Dictionary estimates that there may be, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words—not counting technical and scientific vocabulary, regional slang, or inflections—and yet, at times, there still don't seem to be enough to express exactly how we feel. It's times like these that even lexicographers like Kory Stamper, who know words inside out, end up borrowing terms from non-English languages. Words like 'kummerspeck' in German and 'sisu' in Finnish can capture entire worlds in just a single word. Stamper runs us through four foreign-language words that have no English equivalent, but will probably leave you with an epiphany of: "Oh yeah! That’s what I was feeling!" Kory Stamper is the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.
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