WORDS IN THE HAND: WORDS WITHOUT WORDS
What the f**k was that, Mr Fiennes? Well, probably not gökotta
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
It is impossible, say those who compile dictionaries, to fix a total for the number of words in English. Not because lexicographers can’t count, but (partly) because they are divided about what counts as a word and what doesn’t.
A common argument is whether the word “dog” should be counted as one word (the noun for an animal that is always pleased to see you) or two (the verb that means “to follow closely” – also sometimes known as “stalking”).
There are technical words, obsolete words, words that exist simply to join or qualify other words, foreign words, dialect, slang, jargon and abbreviations.
Making allowance for new words that constantly swell the river of English as well as those that dry up from neglect, experts estimate the total to be somewhere between a quarter of a million and three-quarters of a million.
That’s a very wide margin, even for those who might be used to massaging dodgy figures.
With all these resources at our disposal, we should never be at a loss for words. And yet there is no single word for being unable to find a word to adequately express oneself. Not that I can think of, anyway.
I’m not calling English inadequate or dull or deficient or anything like that, but when you look at some of the intricate concepts and emotions expressed in one word in other languages, it’s hard not to feel a bit envious.
In a book called Landmarks, European nature writer Robert McFarlane compiled a lexicon of wild words from various dialects. One of these is smeuse, which means, in some regional derivation of Celtic, “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”.
It is the thing that happens when you look in the mirror after a haircut and feel your heart plummet to the floor, smashing down and curling up with the sad, limp, non-reattachable shanks of your former glory.
An essay on the website The Book of Life lists 30 other untranslatable words. The one I like best is the Scottish tartle, which describes that awkward moment of hesitation when you forget someone’s name. I have not been able to establish whether tartle is a verb or a noun. When you pretend to choke on a peppermint while saying a name that could equally be heard as “Kerryn” or “Angelica”, are you tartling?
The most sensual word on this list comes from Brazil, where they speak not Brazilian but a hot-blooded type of Portuguese. Cafuné, in the land of Neymar and Gisele, is “the act of running one’s fingers, gently but deeply, through someone else’s hair”.
Speaking of hair, the Japanese have the word – or perhaps words, depending on your feeling for hyphens – age-otori – which is the thing that happens when you look in the mirror after a haircut and feel your heart plummet to the floor, smashing down and curling up with the sad, limp, non-reattachable shanks of your former glory.
Another strange but rather pretty word is the Swedish gökotta, a familiar concept to those who intentionally wake up early specifically in order to go outside and hear the birds sing.
I can’t say I have ever experienced gökotta. You don’t need to get up and go outside to hear the hadedas where I live. You can still hear them even with your head under the pillow.
What we really need is a word for the moment of hesitation when you are on the telephone to someone foreign and important (in my case, the actor Ralph Fiennes) who has never heard a hadeda before and the idiot bird’s jarring scream interrupts your conversation, followed by a confused and slightly embarrassed silence on the other side of the line as the person to whom you are talking wonders what torture is being conducted in your home, and you aren’t sure whether to say “it’s just a hadeda”, because then you would have to explain what a hadeda is and then, apart from wasting your few precious minutes of allotted interview time, you’d be over-explaining and would sound even more like the sort of person who had forgotten to close the door of the torture chamber before answering the phone.
There might not be a word for this sort of conundrum, but in this particular case Mr Fiennes saved the day, by saying: “Excuse me, but what the f**k is that noise?”