Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Where to find those words you know you need

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

My colleague in columny Maureen Dowd charged recently that Vice President Dick Cheney and his aides "shoehorned all their meshugas about Saddam's aluminum tubes, weapons labs, drones and al-Qaida links into former secretary of state Colin Powell's UN speech."

Two weeks before, in a review of local delicatessens, Erik Himmelsbach wrote in the Los Angeles City Beat that the corned beef in Brent's deli was high quality but that the dignified restaurant was "missing the mishegoss associated with the deli experience."

Mishegoss -- Himmelsbach's spelling better reflects the pronunciation of the Yiddish term (mish-eh-GOSS) than Dowd's -- is rooted in the Hebrew adjective meshuga, "mad, insane." But as Leo Rosten noted in his classic The Joys of Yiddish mishegoss is more often used in a light, amused, madcap vein: "a wacky, irrational, absurd belief ... a piece of tomfoolery" or, in another sense, a foolish fixation: "She has a new mishegoss -- that the neighbors are trying to ruin her."

This is an example of a vocabugap (vo-CAB-you-gap), a word I was forced to coin today to describe the situations in our lives for which we have no English word -- and have to turn to a foreign language for lexical expansion. In past columns, we have explored a couple of favorite nouns from the German language: Schadenfreude, "the guilty feeling of pleasure at the misfortune of others" and Fingerspitzengefuehl, "the sandpapered-fingertip sensitivity of a safecracker."

Every few months a query comes in about in-laws: "What do I call my father-in-law's brother?" The English lexicon does have that unfilled semantic space. Yiddish comes to the rescue by naming all one's relatives by marriage as machetunim, (mokh-eh-TOO-nim), plural of the Hebrew mechutan, (mokh-HOO-ten), which could signify your spouse's mother's second cousin. The most inclusive word is mishpocheh (mish-PAW-kheh), literally "family," which lumps together just about everybody invited to the wedding. It is similar to the Russian rodnye (rohd-NEE-eh). The linguist Christopher Moore came out with a book last year, In Other Words, that offers a range of needed words from different languages. What do you call your peace offering -- of flowers, candy, baseball tickets, whatever -- to an angry spouse when you come staggering home hours late? Try the German Drachenfutter, "dragon fodder." The palliative bribe may not work, but the word fills the vocabugap.

What noun sums up the inescapable bore who buttonholes you to make a pitch or unload on you an interminable tale of woe? The Italian solution: attaccabottoni (at-TAC-ca-BOT-own-ee). In a more bittersweet mood, the Russian offers razbliuto (ros-blee-OO-toe), "a feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but no longer feels the same way about." (Why can't we be friends?) Optimists about Middle Eastern events will keep their eyes on the Arabic taarradhin (TAH-rah-deen). Though it's hard to find a specific term for "compromise" in that language, taarradhin suggests the resolution of a conflict that involves no humiliation: our closest definition is "a win-win outcome." Many foreign languages are difficult for the Japanese to learn because their language is written vertically. They have come up with the phrase yoko ("horizontal") meshi ("boiled rice"), meaning "a meal eaten sideways." Yoko meshi evokes the stress that comes from trying to make oneself understood in a foreign language.

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