Lost, dead, underused, untranslatable, and under-appreciated words: Part 1, M.

Greenland Drawing by Zaria FormanI don’t often start at the beginning, primarily because I rarely know where to find the beginning. As a writer, this is probably a bad habit, but I don’t care too much. Usually, it works out for the best—I find that starting at the beginning is the swiftest route to reader-boredom. I admit sometimes have trouble finding the end or figuring out how to wrap up an article, though I never have much trouble finding the punchline. I should probably just not write serious things and focus on telling jokes, but I am getting ahead of (behind? I’m not sure?) myself.

Anyway, the point is this: I am starting a new series of my blog of words that are lost, dead, underused, untranslatable, or under-appreciated. Basically, it’s going to be a bunch of cool words that I like and think others might enjoy.

I’m starting near the middle, because that’s what feels right (and because alphabetical order is great for glossaries, but not all that crucial for rambling bloggers). So today, I found three words that begin with M. Here ya go:

Montivagant (Noun, English)
This English word was used most often during the 17th Century and although it is considered a “dead” word, it’s not entirely forgotten. It describes a person who wanders over mountains and hills, a particularly ambitious vagabond. It’s someone who gains and loses altitude as they put one foot in front of the other, up and down, up and down. It’s a rambling man, a roadie without a band. In short, it’s how I want to live my life.

Mångata (Noun, Swedish)
This is a Swedish word that has no exact equivalent in English. It describes the “road-like reflection of the moon on water.” It’s that stairway to heaven that happens when you’re lakeside on a summer night and the moon rises big and slow and lazy.

Merrythought (Noun, English)
This word for the wishbone of a bird is extremely dated and sounds it (“Would you like to pull my merrythought?” asked no one ever). The first known appearance of “Merrythought” was in 1607. I’m squirreling this information away for use at Thanksgiving. When the dinner table talk inevitably and uncomfortably turns to politics, I plan to bust this one out to distract the quibblers.

Image: “Greenland” by Brooklyn-based artist Zaria Forman from her series “Chasing the Light,” which focuses on the interplay between light and water. I’ve blogged about her before, and I’m a huge fan of her work. See more here. 

Advertisements

Things that make me happy: Japanese string gardens, Dylan Thomas & a song for Spring.

hanging string gardens japan1. In Tokyo, the “experience designers” at teamLab have created a beautiful, kinetic hanging garden made with a form of bonsai called Kokedama. Tied with string and bound with moss, the plants are able to grow mid-air, roots burrowing into little contained bundles of dirt. And because art and science are just natural bedfellows: This floating field is also mechanized to move with your body, parting the way for views to walk amongst the blossoms unhindered. What a lovely, happy thing to create. It reminds me of another untranslatable word I’ve been digging: Shinrin-yokuTranslated literally it means forest-bathing, but it’s often used to refer to a short, rejuvenating walk in the woods. Nice, right?

2. One of my all-time favorite poems is “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. Just go read it to see why. This is one of those poems where all the parts are the best part, but here is a sample:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light.

3. A perfect song for warmer weather!

When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain.

Three Peaks by Cathy McMurray

Idiom:ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ
Literal translation: “One afternoon in your next reincarnation.”
What it means: “It’s never gonna happen.”
Other languages this idiom exists in: A phrase that means a similar thing in English: “When pigs fly.” In French, the same idea is conveyed by the phrase, “when hens have teeth (quand les poules auront des dents).” In Russian, it’s the intriguing phrase, “When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain (Когда рак на горе свистнет).” And in Dutch, it’s “When the cows are dancing on the ice (Als de koeien op het ijs dansen).”

The folks at the TED Talks blog went around asking translators what their favorite idioms were from other cultures. The results are awesome. It’s also interesting to see how many of them use animal imagery. The idioms from Japan are almost all about cats. (For instance, “cat’s forehead” is a very small space, often used to describe one’s property in self-deprecating terms. I might start using this one.) Many of them are about wolves, because, I suppose, wolves were a real issue in medieval Europe (or so picture books would have me believe). I love the Russian ones the best, I think, and the Slavic ones. I could see “when a lobster whistles on top of a mountain” catching on pretty easily in Maine, seeing as we have a lot of lobsters and some pretty gorgeous mountains.

Speaking of mountains, the picture above is actually of the other coast by Portland-based (again, other Portland) artist Cathy McMurray. I am completely in love with her style—the big blocks of color mixed with intricate, repetitive detail—and I actually own a few of her prints. Go check her out here.

Some bookish things: Snow maidens, Vonnegut, & Tsundoku

kurt1. Isn’t this portrait of Kurt Vonnegut great? He wrote such dark books, but had such a lovely, optimistic mind. The Chicago-based artist does other funny “pep-talk” prints, including a great one of Dolly Parton.

2. I just learned a new “untranslatable” word, and it perfectly describes my apartment: Tsundoku. It’s a Japanese word that describes the act of buying books and leaving them unread in piles around your home. Right now, I’m staring at a pile of books that includes novels by Sarah Waters (who wrote Fingersmith, which was just fantastic) and The Snow Childwhich I’m actually quite close to finishing, so technically it’s not “unread.” But I wish it were! It’s so, so good that I wish I hadn’t read it so I could go back to the beginning and start over. It’s about an old homesteader couple in Alaska that wish a child into being. The magic snow-child’s name is Faina. How beautiful is that?

In Norway they call it Friluftsliv; in Maine we call it everyday life.

Ken Douglas Norway 2My love for all things Scandinavian continues with the word friluftsliv. What is that unpronounceable string of syllables, you ask? It’s a Norwegian concept, and there is no direct translation in the English language for what it means (in case you want to drop it into conversation, it’s pronounced free-loofts-liv). But anyone who lives in Maine will recognize the feeling—it’s that sense of being connected to nature, of feeling part of the greater world, of being outdoors and breathing the air, knowing that with each breath you are taking the exhalation of trees and droplets of lake water and even the matter of mountains into your lungs. Ken Douglas NorwayOkay, I’m editorializing a bit. Friluftsliv means “free air life” or “open air living” and it is similar to the concept of allemannsretten, which literally means “all men’s right” but is often translated as “freedom to roam.” (Did you know you can camp on anyone’s land in Norway, so long as you’re a certain distance from buildings? Free roaming for all!) Coined relatively recently, in 1859 by poet Henrik Ibsen, friluftsliv is a way of living that brings us into close contact with the great outdoors. It’s about connecting with nature, living in harmony with the green things that grow around us. Like the Danish concept of Hygge, frilutsliv provides another barometer for happiness—an alternative way of approaching harsh winters. Don’t hibernate—celebrate!

Scandinavian culture is so fascinating, and the longer I live in Maine, the more I appreciate their cold-weather wisdom.

Read more about this untranslatable word at Mother Nature Network (there’s also a short documentary at the link, which is great for procrastinating/feeding your wanderlust).

Images by Ken Douglas.

I want to move to Iceland for the Jolabokaflod.

wild reindeer
Every year, my mom gives me a book for Christmas. She gets me other things, too, because my mom and I share a tendency to over-gift, but the book was a constant. As a child, we were often allowed to open these packages on Christmas Eve. We only got one gift early, and it was always, always a book.

I thought this tradition was unique to my family. Turns out, it’s a common practice in Iceland. Books are such a standard present in that cold country that it spurs a surge in publishing in the months leading up to the holiday. This wonderfully literary ritual even has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas Book Flood.”

According to this NPR article, Iceland is an extremely literary country. Not only does every Icelander aspire to write a book (hey, me too!) but the average citizen buys more books than the typical American. “If you look at book sales distribution in the U.K. and the States, most book sales actually come from a minority of people. Very few people buy lots of books. Everybody else buys one book a year if you’re lucky,” says Baldur Bjarnason, a researcher who has been following the Icelandic publishing market. “It’s much more widespread in Iceland. Most people buy several books a year.”

Several books a year? Okay, that doesn’t sound like that many, especially to a book-horder like me. But it is a fairly big difference. Literary culture, on the whole, is much more significant in Iceland than in America. Perhaps this explains why so many Icelanders believe in elves (aka the Huldufólk, or “hidden people”). Maybe people who read more fairytales are more likely to believe in them. Or perhaps just reading in general opens your mind to the weird and wonderful possibilities of the world—magic not excluded.iceland cabin

“I loved reading and I wanted you kids to love books,” said my Christmas-crazy mom when I asked her whether she knew about this Scandinavian ritual. “A lot of people have the tradition of singing carols, which is what I did as a kid. Reading books to you kids was something we could do all together.” We’ve never been a musical family (I’m particularly tone deaf, though my brothers aren’t exactly talented in that department either) so reading it was.

There are a lot of holiday rituals I don’t observe. I’m not religious, nor do I imagine that will change (I don’t believe in elves, either, though I sort of wish I did). But a tradition that revolves around giving—and getting—brand new reading material? That’s my kind of Christmas.

History of words gets visualized in Minna Sundberg’s lovely arboreal chart.

languagetree

Check out this amazing illustration, which shows the growth and spread of “Old World” in a properly old school-lookin’ linguistic family tree. Stunning, isn’t it?

As a side note, Finno-Ugric is the strangest language group! I lived in Hungary for six months and learned so little Hungarian—I remember it took me weeks to properly pronounce köszönöm (thank you) and even then, I still preferred to just say the short version (sounds like “kussie”) for fear of embarrassing myself. It’s such a difficult language, and related to so few other European tongues. I always loved to hear it spoken—to me it always sounded twisty and jagged, yet musical, like a piano played too fast. Oh, Magyar. I miss you.

To be fair, I’m also terrible at languages in general, despite being fascinated (a little in love with, honestly) words and their sounds.

{Via}