The New Words and Ideas We Need

The team behind the Oxford English Dictionary recently announced a list of new words to be included in 2005, but commentator Bill Langworthy believes the words we get aren't always the words we need.

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Earlier this month the Oxford English Dictionary announced its annual list of new entries to be added to the catalog of words used all over the English-speaking world. The OED's mission is to define and provide the history of words used in countries from North America to South Africa, from Australia and New Zealand to the Caribbean. That's a huge range of countries and cultures with people who express themselves in English. Commentator Bill Langworthy says that as rich and varied as English may be, there are still some things for which there are no words in the OED.


Each year the Oxford English Dictionary opens its doors and accepts a handful of new words for membership. Each year I'm disappointed. Recent dictionary entries seem to fall into two major categories: words associated with vanity--ego-surfing, personal trainer, bad hair day--and words associated with societal ills--carjack, dirty bomb, boy band. While it would seem that a language that included `Eeyore-ish'(ph) in its dictionary has too many words, a look at some of the wonderful words belonging to other cultures reminds us how incomplete our dictionary really is.

The French have a great phrase: l'esprit de l'escalier; literally the spirit of the staircase. It means coming up with the perfect intelligent, witty thing to say on your way out of the party. I mention this one first because I'm afraid I'll forget it.

You know the feeling when you see a baby who is so adorable that it physically hurts you? The Indonesians have a word for it: gamas(ph). Only you have to say it gamas, the way you would if you were pinching a baby's cheek. Use it once and you're hooked. My neighbor's baby is cute, but my nephew is gamas.

The Germans have Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the embarrassment and misfortune of others. I told my German friend how odd it was that Americans don't have a term for this. `You do,' she said. `You call it reality TV.'

The best way to describe the Danish word hygge is to illustrate it. Eating a delicious meal with family is hygge. New romances are hygge. Walk into a party with an old friend and the prospect of several bottles of wine is very hygge. If you had to translate you might use words like cozy and familiar, but you'd risk angering the Danes. They consider hygge the essence of their soul, not a word with narrow definitions. They have entire Web sites devoted to it and some go so far as to tattoo it on their bodies.

The art of trying to fix something only to make it far worse is described by the Yiddish word farpotshket. Can you think of a word that sounds more complicated, muddled and frustrated than farpotshket? It's like a Frankenstein of obscenity, created from different parts of a dozen swears. The next time you reach to brush a piece of lint off your date's shirt, then spill the bottle of wine on their pants, try screaming, `Farpotshket!' It's far more satisfying than a hundred curse words.

Not all these words are useful. New Guinea's word mulkeeta(ph) refers to something that everyone knows but no one mentions. There's an impractical word. How do you talk about something that nobody talks about? The second you say mulkeeta, it ceases to be mulkeeta.

The old Oxford Dictionary remains an exclusive club, but one whose walls a few rogue words always manage to scale. And so sidad(ph), Portuguese for staring into the middle distance with wistful longing, is destined to remain wistfully longing outside its gates while bada-bing and bootylicious are inside enjoying daiquiris by the pool.

BLOCK: Commentator Bill Langworthy is a writer in Los Angeles.

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