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Vol. X No.18 - December 1 - December 31, 2011


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Life in Chiang Mai  By Colin Jarvis

 

The meaning of words and Christmas

By Adam Jacot de Boinod, author of The Meaning of Tingo (and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World)

My interest in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when one day, working as a researcher for the BBC, I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no less than 27 words for eyebrow and the same number for different types of moustache.

My curiosity soon became a passion. I was unable to go near a bookshop or library without sniffing out the often dusty shelf where the foreign language dictionaries were kept. I started to collect favourites: nakhur, for example, a Persian word meaning ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’; Many described strange or unbelievable things. How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a marilopotes, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coaldust’? And could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb tsuji-giri, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’?

I looked at languages from all corners of the world, from the Fuegian of southernmost Chile to the Inuit of northernmost Alaska, from the Maori of the remote Cook Islands to Siberian Yakut. Some of them describe, of course, strictly local concepts and sensations, such as paarnguliaq, the Inuit for ‘a seal that has strayed and can’t find its breathing hole’. But others reinforce the commonality of human experience. Haven’t we all felt termangu-mangu, the Indonesian for ‘sad and not sure what to do’ or mukamuka, the Japanese for ‘so angry one feels like throwing up’?

I then moved onto the English Language – from Anglo-Saxon to Trailer Park Slang- and scoured the dialects of Britain collected so lovingly by Victorian lexicographers. In the Midlands we find a jaisy, a polite and effeminate man, and in Yorkshire a stridewallops, a tall and awkward woman. In Cornwall you might be described as ploffy (plump); in Shropshire, having joblocks (fleshy, hanging cheeks); while down in Wiltshire hands that have been left too long in the washtub are quobbled.

The Festive Season

All over the world the advent of the festive season is eagerly awaited, whether for the singing of carols, the trimming of the tree or the cheering prospect of a white Christmas.

skábma (Sami, Northern Scandinavia) the darkest part of winter

tewtle (Yorkshire dialect) to snow just a few flakes

pitchen (Bristol dialect) settling snow

cloggins (Cumberland dialect) balls of snow on the feet

devil’s blanket (Newfoundland) snowfall which hinders habitual work

sluppra (Shetland Isles dialect) half-melted snow

barvinter (Swedish) a snowless winter.

Then comes the decking of the ‘halls with boughs of holly’:

téliesít (Hungarian) to convert a house for winter use

trimens (Bristol dialect) Christmas decorations

hederated (UK 1661) adorned with ivy  

beschneien (German) to cover with artificial snow 

The wind-down from work starts in earnest with the annual office party: just beware of the Tantenverführer (German) a young man of suspiciously good manners you suspect of devious motives (literally, aunt seducer) and el pupo (Spanish), someone who likes to touch women inappropriately (literally, octopus) or worse still an okuri-okami (Japanese) a man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to try and molest her once he gets in the door (literally, a see-you-home wolf). Doubtless, they run the risk of dragging the pudding (UK c1870) or getting the sack just before Christmas.

In Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, your age is measured not in years but in how many Christmases you’ve lived through: you’re not twenty, you’re twenti krismas. Rather less charmingly, the Japanese expression to describe single women over 25 years old is kurisumasu keiki - leftover Christmas cake.

For some, it’s the expectation of a good old get together:

pamamaskó (Tagalog, Philippines) the act of visiting during Christmas

gezellig (Dutch) an atmosphere of cosiness, of being with good friends, and spending time together laughing and having fun; the kind of moments that create memories.

And the customary shopping sprees:

emax (Latin) fond of buying

ipatapata (Lozi, Niger-Congo) to try hard to find money with which to make an urgent purchase.

All leading to present giving itself and the question of whether it’s better to give:

cowichan (British Columbia, Canada) a vividly patterned striped jumper

tsutsumu (Japanese) the art of wrapping things up nicely in an attractive and appropriate way

crawmassing (Lincolnshire dialect) going round begging gifts at Christmas

square stocking (US slang) Christmas boxes dispatched to British troops on active service overseas

uunguta (Yamana, Chile) to give much more to one than to others

refiler (French) to give something you no longer want as a present

syentecezya (Mambwe, Zambia) to give somebody a gift and shortly afterwards to take it back

Or to receive:

wiin-gana (Yamana, Chile) to refuse a gift

arimuhunán (Tagalog, Philippines) something worth taking although unneeded

ta’arof (Persian) a situation when a person turns something down that they actually want, so as not to cause the offerer inconvenience

gift (Turkish) to go away

what else did you get for Christmas? (Australian slang) a derisory retort to a motorist sounding his horn at another (as though playing with a new toy)

For many it’s one guaranteed occasion for a happy family get-together:

sitike (Apache, USA) in-laws who are formally committed to help during crises

biras (Malay) the relationship between two brothers’ wives or two sisters’ husbands

todamane (Tulu, India) entertaining a son-in-law or mother-in-law for the first time

bruja (Spanish, South America) a mother-in-law (literally, a witch)

bol (Mayan, Mexico) foolish in-laws.

Though its dangers are all too common:

rikonmiminenzo (Japanese) the divorce-promotion generation

cintizi yantu (Mambwe, Zambia) a hard-hearted person who pretends not to know his relatives

kal (Chewa, SE Africa) the jealous strife between wives of a polygamous husband

kaelling (Danish) a woman who stands on the steps of her house yelling obscenities at her kids.

At least there’s the feted Christmas meal:

bubbly jock (Scottish dialect) a turkey

bonx (Essex dialect) to beat up batter for pudding

engastration (UK 1814) the act of stuffing one bird into another

beiriú spóla (Irish) the time required for boiling a Christmas joint or the time taken to singe a goose with a lighted straw

kavavangaheti (Tsonga, South Africa) a dead animal so large that people cannot finish its meat (such as a hippo, elephant or whale).

Whatever you put on your table, you can be fairly sure that someone will hoover it up:

smell-feast (UK 1519) one who haunts good tables, a greedy sponger

cosherer (UK 1634) someone who feasts or lives upon the industry of others

slapsauce (UK 1573) a person who enjoys eating fine food, a glutton

hodger (US current slang) a guest who eats all of the host's food and drinks all of the host's drinks.

Perhaps the best you can hope for is reasonable table manners:

dooadge (Yorkshire dialect) to handle food in a messy way (often said of children)

mimp (UK 1861) to play with one’s food

pingle (Suffolk dialect) to move food about on the plate for want of an appetite

yaffle (UK 1788) to eat or drink especially noisily or greedily

snock (Newfoundland 1969) to make a snapping noise or biting movement especially with the jaws of a hobby-horse in Christmas mumming.

Washed down with:

supernaculum (UK 1592) the finest wine, which is so good it is drunk to the last drop, referring to the custom of turning over a drained glass and letting the last drop of wine fall onto the thumbnail (from the Latin ‘upon the nail’)

vspryskivat’ (Russian) to drink in celebration of the holiday (literally, to besprinkle)

to smash the teapot (UK late 19C) to abandon one’s pledge of abstinence (the symbolic rejection of tea as one’s sole liquid stimulant)

crambazzled (Yorkshire dialect) prematurely aged through drink and a dissolute life.

Before the effects of too much good cheer:

dlanyaa (Tsonga, South Africa) to lie on one’s back with one’s legs apart gorged with food

parecer arena fumigada (El Salvador and Mexican Spanish) to be suffering from the effects of too much partying or drinking (literally, to seem like a fumigated spider)  

natafelen (Dutch) staying seated at the dinner table when the meal is over to enjoy some conversation and other people’s company

yule-hole (Scots dialect b1911) the last hole to which a man could stretch his belt at a Christmas feast

vomitarium (Latin) the room where a guest threw up in order to empty his stomach for more feasting.

And an excuse for fun and games:

dynke (Norwegian) the act of dunking someone’s face in snow

Handschuhschneeballwerfer (German) somebody who wears gloves to throw snow balls

kram snř (Norwegian) snow which is sticky (excellent for making snow-balls and snowmen).

All in preparation for further jollity:

garlic (UK 17C) a lively jig

buff-ball (UK 1880) a party where everyone dances naked

adam and eve ball (UK 1920s) an early dancing party to which the guests are invited until 12 o’clock only

scolion (UK 1603) a song sung in turn by the guests at a banquet

griddle (b1851) to sing in the streets.

And it can only be hoped that conviviality doesn’t lead to overindulgence:

hozzy nozzy (Rutland dialect) not quite drunk

as full as a fairy’s phone book (Australian slang late 1900s) drunk

maudlinism (Dickens: Pickwick Papers 1837) the stage of drunkenness characterised by the shedding of tears and effusive displays of affection

vice admiral of the narrow seas (UK slang b1811) a drunken man that pisses under the table into his companions’ shoes

admiral of the narrow seas (UK early 17C) a drunkard who vomits over his neighbour at table.

Before struggling back home:

voiture-balai (French) the last train or bus (literally, ‘broom vehicle’ as it sweeps up the latecomers)

barrer (UK c1870) to convey a drunk home on a barrow

take a sheep-bed (Wiltshire dialect) to lie down like a sheep to sleep in a grass-field, till one is sober (of a labourer who has drunk too much).

To prepare for a repeat performance on New Year’s Eve:

brocade (French) a firework star that burns long, so that it leaves down-drooping trails of light as it falls

giao-thua (Vietnamese) the transition hour between the old year and the new year on New Year’s Eve

odjikdiwini-gijigad (Ojibway, North America) kissing-day, New Year's Day

Julgransplundring (Swedish) the removal of all the decorations from the Christmas tree.

Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo (and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World) published by Penguin Press.


The King’s Birthday Present – To Me

The proud author and father with his daughter
after the Father’s Day ceremony at school.

On the Friday of the King's birthday celebrations I had the most amazing experience of the kind that only Thailand can provide. I had been asked if I would like to go along to the celebration ceremony arranged by my daughter’s school. I envisaged long hours, sitting in the sun, watching amateur performances by the students. These are usually very good but I cannot say I was entirely thrilled at the prospect.

It was only when I arrived that I realised I had been set up. I was told to sit on a chair that had my name on it. Always a dangerous omen! The chair was one of perhaps 24 ranged in two rows and quickly occupied by other, slightly baffled, fathers.

The whole school sat down beside us facing a huge stage. A few dignitaries made fairly short speeches after which to classical Thai dancers performed exquisitely. As someone who once set up a school for classical Thai dancing in the UK, I can tell whether I am watching excellent or bad classical Thai dance. This performance was very good. I was then astonished to see a young student walk onto the stage and proceed to sing like the proverbial angel. It was quite astonishing. Not just the voice but the poise, the control and the stage presence was outstanding. Whoever she is she has star quality. I was very glad I had come.

Suddenly we fathers were ushered on to the stage where chairs had been prepared for us. Students crawled on their knees to position themselves in front of us and I was surprised to see my daughter giving me the respect that I had not seen for years. It was a very emotional moment and one I shall treasure for ever. She then gave me with a present and, on her knees, crept round to kneel behind me. She then proceeded to give me another present. I was confused! Why should my daughter sit behind me and then thrust a present over my shoulder. The answer became obvious quite quickly when another line of students crawled on to the stage and again knelt before us. We fathers presented these gifts to children sitting in front of us and I later learned that these were awards for excellent performance. This happened twice and I wondered whether we were going to have to repeat this exercise for the several thousand students sitting in front of us.

I have learned in Thailand to trust planning less and to just accept what comes. This attitude is well described in the expression "Go with the flow". The flow now indicated that we fathers should leave the stage with our children and we played follow the leader until we arrived by the Ping River. There I was presented with a small plastic bucket in which were a number of very small fish. I had not noticed that everyone else was carefully holding one hand over the top of the bucket. I neglected to do so and with in a few seconds my feet were surrounded by flapping, grasping, wriggling, slippery, fish fry. I could not leave them there to die and trying to pick them up, unobtrusively, was quite a task but I think I managed it.

Of course, we put the fish back in the river and in doing so made merit. I often wonder about the people who take the fish out of the river in the first place. Do they lose merit by doing so?

Suddenly the ceremony was over and I and my daughter walked back to find our respective wife and mother. It was a sudden and somewhat anticlimactic end to a wonderful and very emotional ceremony. It was only later that I learnt that my daughter had earned the right to ask me to come and I'm truly grateful that she did.

I have often said that when Thai people do things well they do them exceptionally well and this was certainly the case. I shall never forget the day and will always be grateful to Sacred Heart College for allowing me to participate.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

The meaning of words and Christmas

The King’s Birthday Present – To Me

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