English is acquisitive, and as described in the video below, it continues to collect words from other languages, creating one of the largest vocabularies available. For us editors and wordsmiths, there’s a great joy in overly specific words like “petrichor“, essentially the smell created when rain falls on dry ground. But clearly English is lacking as a language, as it does not include words for certain concepts, such as the moment when you think of a witty retort too late, or eating not because you are hungry, but because your mouth is lonely. Erica Brozofsky, from the PBS Otherwords video series, comes to the rescue, and offers these and a variety of other words and phrases with great potential to improve our expressive lives.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


12 Thoughts on "Words We Need"

See The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and Jonathan Lloyd, which borrows place names to describe things that have no current word to describe them – very funny. My favourite is joliet.

One of my favourite incredibly specific words is wayzgoose. I do hope that TSK’s staff get to indulge in a wayzgoose now and then!

The fun thing about language is that speakers are able to express themselves as they wish. A speaker may not know the word “paradigm”, but they are able to express its meaning using other words.

Similarly, English does not “need” these words, nor is it “lacking as a language” — if it did, speakers would import them into their idiolect, which may then move onto their local dialect before becoming further mainstream. That’s how language works.

“Need” may be a little strong, but sometimes it’s nicer to just say “shemomechana” than to launch into a 79 word description of an idea, as demonstrated in the video.

If English-speaking communities felt that they needed a more succinct way to express that idea, they would invent a way to do so.

Perhaps we need a word for things that are probably not practical or useful, but that are amusing and fun to think about anyway 😉

I think all languages need to have: You, Youse, Y’all and All y’all.

Some of my favorite words that we don’t have in English include 木漏れ日 (komorebi) a Japanese word that describes the visual effect of sunlight filtering through trees in a forest; 積読 (tsundoku) another Japanese word meaning “to accumulate books that you never read”; and 눈치 (nunchi) a Korean word meaning the ability to gauge the mood of others. But probably my favourite although useless word is “poronkusema” an archaic Finnish expression meaning “reindeer’s piss” and being the distance the same animal can travel before it needs to urinate (approximately six miles apparently).

How about a word for those which are intended to obscure, obfuscate and replace clear, understood and more precise terms. Perhaps complemented with a dictionary of obfuscatory language…

Oh well, then Japanese is your language. Along with many extraordinarily precise terms with very specialized and narrow frames of usage, Japanese contains a wealth of nuanced vocabulary designed to be vague, emollient, and non-confrontational! It’s one of the things that makes it maddening to learn whilst being utterly fascinating.

“If English-speaking communities felt that they needed a more succinct way to express that idea, they would invent a way to do so.”

Really? How many grandparents have you or had you? The answer is four: but how do you tell those of your mother’s side from those of your father’s side? In English there is no simple way. In Danish it is easy: mor mor (mother’s mother), mor far (mother’s father), far far (father’s father), far mor (father’s mother). Why not in English: mum’s mum, mum’s dad, dad’s dad, dad’s mum?

And how about singular non-gender specific pronouns and singular non-gender specific possessive adjectives? The use of ‘they’ and ‘their’ borders on the absurd, and is certainly very often misleading.

Tey for he or she, tem for him or her, ter for his (possessive adjective) or her, ters for his (possessive pronoun) or hers. Why not? One reads: “The driver crashed the car they were driving; it was not theirs; they were killed. Their family have been told.” Why not: “The driver crashed the car tey were driving car; it was not ters; tey were killed. Ter family have been told.”?

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