This text is a review (okay, more like a rant) about The meaning of Tingo, written by Adam Jacot de Boinod. The book is a collection of funny, unique and weird words and phrases from a lot of different languages. It is expected to be a bestseller. If it is, I'm going to be sad, because Boinod misses the point entirely.
Via Metafilter, I stumbled across an article in the Independent (http://kamps.org/g/?ggwq), which is essentially a commercial banner for a new book - The meaning of Tingo - to be released later this fall, written by Adam Jacot de Boinod.
The concept of the book is simple: How come only German has a word for 'a person who leaves without paying the bill' (Zechpreller) or that Albanians need 27 words for moustache? A compelling new book uncovers the globe's most weird, wonderful - and meaningful - words. John Walsh picks his favourites.
Immediately, I call bullshit and lose interest. And I fear that the book will become a bestseller, and a load of two-bit idiots will start using these random words, in their quasi-interested glee.
The 30 words for snow
The mentioned Independent article refers to the 30+ Inuit words for snow, which is incorrect. In fact, there are no more words for snow in the Inuit language than in English. In fact, the same could be claimed about Norway: Norwegian doesn't have more words meaning snow, but the Norwegian language does have a set of words that are only used about snow. Such as Kram snø (snow which is sticky, excellent for making snow-balls and snowmen), Slaps (wet, nearly molten snow), Hålke (snow that is compacted into ice - especially on the road), Skare (snow that has a hard layer on top, usually strong enough to walk on top, with loose snow underneath), Hardang (really thick Skare), Skavl (a snow pile with a sharp end - shaped by the wind) and Fonn (a word meaning "a pile", only used about snow). And of course, we have "kryne", which is the act of dunking somebodys face in snow.
In addition, there are dozens of compound words, such as Puddersnø (powder snow - light flurry snow), Fauke (loose, flurry snow), Valleslett (snow on the border between snow and rain), Sludd (wet snow), drivsnø (snow that keeps flying about without landing, usually light, but with a lot of wind), Eitersnø (small, hard snowflakes - sharp hail, if you will), Dape (weather that changes between snow and rain), Iming (small, dry snowflakes, usually when it's really cold), Snøgauv (lots of snow falling at the same time), Snøstorm (blizzard), Haglbrist (a snowfall interrupted by a hailfall, then snow again), Snøfonn (a pile of snow), Snødrott (awaiting a snowfall), Nysnå (new snow), Fjorårssnø (last years' snow), Snøhim (a very thin layer of snow), Kunstsnø (artificial snow) and Lavsnø (snow that used to be piled on trees).
And trust me, there are tons of others. My point? Well, I don't doubt that the Inuit population has a lot of words for snow, but I managed to trussle up a good few dozen in Norwegian, too. But that goes for any language that has a strong affinity to anything. The English have a lot of words for rain, the Dutch will have a lot of words relating to the ocean and biking, Australians have a lot of words for waves, and I would imagine hot countries have a lot of words for the sun, humidity, and warmth.
So why is this book pointless?
I have no opinion as to how correct or incorrect the words are in this book, but they span an incredible number of languages, which the writer of the book is unlikely to command very well. Or, indeed, at all.
So how did this guy find all these words? Well, according to the article, the writer spent time "looking for foreign dictionaries and the tiny revelations contained therein." Which seems strangely pointless - sure, you are going to find a hell of a lot of words that are weird like that, but does it really say a lot about a culture? Does the fact that English has a word for throwing someone out of a window mean that we have a lot of windows, and that we love to throw people out of it? I think not.
Of course, if the book is correct, it would be great, because I imagine it would be a lot of fun to read. But based on the languages I speak myself, I can't help but wonder. For Danish, the article uses the word "fyrassistent", saying it is a word meaning "an assistant lighthouse keeper." It boggles the mind - well, yeah, that's what it means, but the word isn't invented just like that - it's a compound word. So runkassistent is "an assistant masturbator", a husbyggerassistent is "an assistent house builder" and statsbilmotorsykkelsertifikatutstedelsessekretærassistent is a perfectly gramatically correct word meaning "the assistant to a government secretary who deals with the issuing of driving licenses for cars and motorcycles." Funny? Sure. But accurate? Well, sure, but I just made that word up.
It makes me wonder how many other of the words in that book - whilst funny - are utterly pointless.
The Russians have a word for someone with six fingers? Great. Try "seksfingret" in Norwegian. The Japanese have a word for "A girl who looks as though she might be pretty when seen from behind, but isn't when seen from the front" - well, so do the Brits. Bobfoc is sneaking into the vocabulary. Of course, it's an abbreviation (Body of Baywatch, Face of Crimewatch), but how long until "Bobfoc" hits mainstream? How about "a paperbagger"? It is someone who is so ugly you'd only have sex with them with a paper bag over their head. The list goes on. The Russians have a word for "a dealer in stolen cats"? Great. So do the Norwegians ("Katteheler") and the Dutch ("Kattenheler").
My point is: I don't doubt that this book will make a funny read, but even from that short article, it seems as if the writer has missed the point of language altogether: Making assumptions about cultures based on the words in a language seems ludicrous. Especially with languages that use compound words, you can make some truly surreal words. Hey, let's make one how. How about a word for a female who inspects the way guys take a leak with their left hand? "venstrehåndsurinasjonsinspektrise". But even if that word would ever shows up in the language (it'll show up on my webpage when you search for venstrehåndsurinasjonsinspektrise in Google, it doesn't mean anything.
In fact, I think I would like to suggest a new word. Boindiot. It means "someone who out of context quotes random words from languages they don't know." Let's see if that flies.