On February 14, I had the pleasure of witnessing a naturalization ceremony at the River Centre in St. Paul, MN for 996 new citizens of the United States. In his remarks to the group, Minnesota District Court Judge Patrick J. Schiltz spoke of his own grandmother’s long voyage from Croatia to Ellis Island in 1911, boarding a train to Minnesota and eventually settling in Chisholm, where immigrants from many countries came together to build a community. He said to those gathered: “It is now your turn—your turn to enrich this country with your differences and to strengthen this country with your unity.”
Looking out across the room, I wondered how these people were redefining their idea of home, and what conceptions of the natural world they may have carried from their 80 countries of origin: not only the physical realities of climate, wildlife and landscape, but also the ideological. It called to mind a favorite book, not new but as relevant now as it has ever been: Howard Rheingold’s They have a Word for It, first printed in 1988 and reprinted in 2000 by Sarabande Books.
The book is described on the jacket as “a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words and phrases.” Rheingold has collected and sought to describe words from forty languages relating concepts unfamiliar or unknown in English: in part, for fun, but also as a means to discover new ways of understanding and experiencing life. Rheingold is not a linguist, and his own sense of discovery infuses the book.
He writes: “Finding a name for something is a way of conjuring its existence, of making it possible for people to see a pattern where they didn’t see anything before. [In researching the book] I gradually came to realize that the collective human worldview is far larger than any one of our individual languages leads us to believe. After sifting through all the strange, delightful, horrifying, and hilarious things that people use special words to name, I became sympathetic to the idea that we think and behave the way we do in large part because we have words that make these thoughts and behaviors possible, acceptable, and useful.”
Language not only sorts and organizes, it ascribes significance, Rheingold relates. “We all inherit a worldview along with our native language. Untranslatable words help us notice the cracks between our own worldview and those of others.” Based on the selections he has included in They Have a Word for It, it’s clear that they can also do the opposite: that is, to help us notice places where our worldview resonates with those of others.
Rheingold’s lexicon delves into many realms of human experience, from politics, to social interactions, to business, to spirituality, to states of mind. But there are abundant insights here for anyone interested in how people think about the natural environment. His chapter titled “Eye of the Beholder,” for example, offers glimpses into how people from cultures around the world perceive beauty, especially as found in nature.
The Japanese word yugen (pronounced YOO-gehn with a hard “g”) reflects a certain humility:
yugen (Japanese) An awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words. [noun] As Rheingold explains, yugen expresses an awareness deeper than art can convey; that it cannot be depicted, only suggested. “It is the sense of unutterable depth and profundity that sets yugen as a boundary on language,” he writes.
Another word of Japanese origin, aware (pronounced ah-WAH-ray) is in a similar vein, with a slightly nuanced meaning:
aware (Japanese) The feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty. [noun] Here, Rheingold writes, we have the idea that something may be considered beautiful not in spite of but because of its fragility—say, a falling cherry blossom, succumbing inevitably to the passage of time—along with the human capacity to recognize this beauty.
In a chapter titled “Toolwords,” the book explores ways that different cultures have thought about technology.
The German Schlimmbesserung (sh-lim-BESS-air-oong) is a word with a momentum all its own, says Rheingold, that will bring a rain of suggestions for applications from anyone who hears it:
Schlimmbesserung (German) A so-called improvement that makes things worse. [noun] “We need this word,” says Rheingold, “and we need it now.” He writes: “We can actually improve the quality of life for ourselves and future generations by introducing this word into common usage, especially among planners, designers, developers, engineers, bureaucrats, and policy makers. Our lives will be better when more people have the presence of mind to say, ‘Wait a minute! Let’s reconsider this issue. It is clear that we are planning a Schlimmbersserung, not an improvement.’”
And from the Hopi, who would likely not have been represented among the “new” citizens on that recent February morning, Rheingold offers koyaanisquatsi, (pronounced coy-on-iss-COT-see).
koyaanisquatsi (Hopi) Nature out of balance. [noun] “Not meant to imply an indiscriminate condemnation of technology,” according to Rheingold, but “perfectly applicable to the kind of misuse of technology that creates ecological or human catastrophes.”
It should be noted that many of the featured words and phrases deal with far less weighty matters, as in the French esprit de l’escalier, literally translated as “spirit of the staircase,” which refers to the brilliantly witty remark that comes into one’s mind only after one has left a party. Or like the Italian noun attaccabottoni, which Rheingold gamely translates as “A doleful bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless tales.” No one we know, of course.
The book is organized not by the words’ place of origin but loosely by their meaning. Find French, Scottish, Polish, Tierra del Fuegan, Sioux, Arabic, Bantu, Tibetan, Korean, Hebrew, Kiriwina, Indonesian, Spanish, Balinese, Yiddish, Italian, Sanskrit, Old Icelandic and more, as intermingled as the people sitting in the folding chairs at the naturalization ceremony.
They Have a Word for It is a reminder of the richness and breadth of human experience that tries to find expression in language. Read it cover to cover or dip in at random to read a passage; either way, it will soon become less and less important whether the words are ancient or contemporary, whether their origins are ten miles or ten thousand miles away. New citizens or old, we clearly have a lot to talk about and much to learn from each other’s language traditions, including perspectives on our relationship with the land. As we wrestle with issues like climate change, try to make wise decisions regarding technology, or work to build consensus around the value of protecting wild places, these words—and the awareness that English has not necessarily cornered the market on insight—may help us to find common ground.
Thank you, Howard Rheingold. We needed that.
Selected excerpts printed with permission of Sarabande Books, Louisville Kentucky.