Our words are failing us.
I learned this again when I was working with two women I tutor in English. Our rule when we meet is they speak English to me and I speak Spanish to them. It works well. And they teach me much.
Long ago, I learned that the Spanish word for mountain is montaña. Well, it is, but it isn’t. Montaña refers to a mountain that you might be climbing or want to climb.
It’s a different word, however, if you’re talking about specific mountains, either a singular one or a range. That word is sierra.
I’d heard this word a lot in conversation with friends in Mexico. They’d say las sierras and wave an arm towards a mountain. I wondered why so many mountains were named Sierra. Now, knowing this distinction helps me both speak and understand better.
Spanish also has several words when talking about a hill. Although there may be more, there are three words for hill that I know of: colina, cerro, and loma.
Then there are the words in Spanish that have no English equivalent. One of my favorites is sobremesa. This means the time after a meal when people continue to sit at the table and talk. What a lovely word!
Another good one is peña aneja. This means to feel embarrassment for someone else—whether or not that person feels embarrassed at all.
One I can relate to is desvelado. It means to be deprived of sleep. Sadly, last night I was desvelada once again.
One more I can relate to is friolento, the adjective, and its noun form friolero. These words indicate an unusually strong sensitivity to cold. I’m certainly a friolera, and too often I’m friolenta.
These are fabulous words! Why don’t we have any English equivalents?
Then there’s that Spanish word that can mean almost anything.
Órale! Watch out!
Órale! Hurry up! Or Órale. Go on, get moving.
Órale! That’s amazing!
Órale. I’m waiting.
Órale! Bring it on, asshole.
The most famous example of the inadequacy of our language is the way we describe snow. Eskimos have many words for snow. I’d always heard that there were twenty-three, or maybe only twelve, but perhaps twenty-seven words for snow in Eskimo languages.
In reality, none of these numbers is true. There are many more, the exact number probably unknown.
For example, in the Yupik language alone, there are thirty-four different words that refer to snow. And that is just one language in Alaska. The Yupik even have six separate words that refer to a type of blizzard.
Native people in the Lower 48 also have a variety of words for some things. Consider rain. There is female rain, male rain, and walking rain. Those are just the ones I’ve heard of. I am sure there are also several for thunderstorms.
But we have a few special words also, words other languages may not have. One is psithurism. It means the sound of the wind in the trees and rustling leaves. Isn’t that remarkable? One word for that delicious sound of a breeze through trees.
And here’s one especially appropriate today: snollygoster, a noun. It means a shrewd, unprincipled person. Especially a politician.
But here’s maybe the best, in a twisted sort of way. We all know the word disgruntled: to be irritated or displeased.
Well, I just learned that there is also the opposite, gruntled. Gruntled! It means pleased, satisfied, or contented. And even the verb form, gruntle: to put in a good humor.
This so gruntles me!
John C Jenkins
Good! Glad you did, Tere.
That was fun to read. Learning new words, and their sometimes special nuances, is always an adventure. Psithurism… That’s a mouthful. But it reminded me of a phrase I once read in a book I’d reviewed decades ago, a two word description about the wind in the trees and the rustling of leaves: forest murmurs. It conjured all kinds of delightful images in my mind. Fun essay. Thanks for sharing it.
Thanks, Carol. Forest murmurs. Like it.
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