Monday, February 23, 2015

Traduttore Traditore

The Italian expression traduttore traditore may be translated as “the translator is a traitor”—meaning that any translation is always a betrayal of the true meaning of the original. This may be true, but it’s also a troublesome fact that some words pose particular challenges when you try to express them in other than their original languages.

Today Translations, a British company, has conducted a survey of translators worldwide, asking them the most difficult words they have encountered. Jurga Zilinskiene, head of the company, points out that while it may be easy enough to find a definition in a dictionary, true translation requires conveying the cultural experience and social context into a different language.

On that basis, the translators who were surveyed chose these as the ten words with the most elusive meanings:

ilunga  - Tshiluba for a person who will forgive any abuse for the first time and tolerate it a second time--but never a third time. Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in southeastern Congo and Zaire.

shlimaz - Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person.

radioukacz - Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain.

naa - Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to express agreement or emphasis.

altahmam  - Arabic for a kind of deep sadness.

gezellig - Dutch for cosy.

saudade - Portuguese for a certain type of longing.

selathirupavar - Tamil for a certain type of truancy.

pochemuchka - Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions.

klloshar -Albanian for loser.

What’s that?  Oh, you don’t speak Tshiluba or Tamil and you want to know the most untranslatable words in English. Okay, here’s what the experts said—but you have to provide the definitions yourself:





 googly (British)



 bumf (British)

 chuffed (British)


The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s works have never been translated into any language, including English.

            Some say it’s debatable
            If words are translatable
            When they're untransmittable,
            Or just not admittable
            Because they’re inscrutable,
            Or maybe unsuitable.
            So since they’re not quotable
            And won’t ever be notable,
            Because they’re not writable
            Or not even citable,
            It may be regrettable,
            But they’re just forgettable.

Monday, February 16, 2015

I’ve Got Sixpence

In the years that I lived in England while studying at the University of Birmingham, the British monetary system had not yet been decimalized. It took some getting used to, but after two years I was pretty adept at handling half-crowns, thrup’ny bits, florins, ten-bob notes, and guineas, along with pounds, shillings, and pence. By the time I visited the British Isles again, they had converted to the decimal system, in which one pound was equal to a hundred pennies, just like dollars and cents. I was greatly annoyed that once I had conquered the previous arcane system, the Brits got rid of it!

The pound, or pound sterling as it’s sometimes called, is still the basic unit of currency. The word comes from Latin libra pondo, which meant an amount equivalent in weight to a specified number of grains of wheat. Proto-Germanic punda became pund in Old English. It was used as a unit of money equivalent to that weight in silver; hence, the term “pound sterling.” By the 13th century it was determined that the pound would contain 240 pennies and a penny would be equal in weight to 32 grains of wheat.

The penny can be traced back to as early as the 8th century, when King Offa ordered coinage of money in the shape of a flat disc, known in Old English as a penig.  Its ultimate origin is probably the Old Norse pengar, which meant simply “money.” It is thought that the word may stem from the fact that the coin is shaped liked a pan.

Between the penny and the pound was a shilling. A word from Proto-Germanic skilliingoz, which came into Old High German as skilling, into Norse as skillingri, Dutch as schelling, German as Schilling, and Old Engllish as scilling. It consisted of a varying number of pence, standardized by the 14th century as twelve. Thus twenty shillings made a pound.

The ultimate source of the word is debatable, and may come from either of two Germanic words: skell  (“ring or resound”) or skel (“cut”). The ending –ing is a Germanic form meaning “fractional part.” The –ing is seen also in farthing, a coin no longer in circulation that was worth one-fourth (Old English feorða) of a penny.

In addition to pounds, shillings, and pence, British monetary policy sometimes referred to a half-crown. It was the value of two-and-a-half shillings, or 2 shillings and sixpence. There was a silver coin called a crown (because it bore the emblem of the royal headpiece) minted until 1965, but it was rarely in actual circulation because of its large size.

Pre-decimal coins in circulation in addition to the shilling were the florin (worth two shillings), so-called from a European coin of similar size that was named from the Latin floremi (“flower”) because early Italian versions were imprinted with a lily; a sixpence coin; and a three-penny coin known as a thrup’ny bit.

I used to hear some prices quoted, not in pounds, but in guineas. A guinea was a coin made of about one-fourth ounce of gold; it was minted between 1663 and 1814. At first it was worth the same as a pound, twenty shillings, but increases in the price of gold upped it to as high as thirty shillings, until 1816, when it was standardized at twenty-one shillings. The name came from the Guinea region of West Africa, source of most of the gold. Although it no longer existed as a unit of currency by the 1950s, it was still used to quote prices of expensive luxury goods, in order to make them seem less expensive. A tag of 299 guineas seems less than its equivalent value of £314.

All this talk of money upsets the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who practices his craft for the sheer love of the art, not for any tawdry monetary reward (which he has tried repeatedly to obtain, but without any luck).

            For less than a guinea
            You’ll get twenty blini
            And then if you’d like to have fillings,
            Like mushrooms and ham,
            Or whipped cream and jam,
            Then throw in a couple more shillings.

            While some think it’s nice
            To add a big slice
            Of whitefish or salmon or sturgeon,
            It’s better by far
            With fine caviar,
            So hope that your sturgeon’s a virgin.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Help! Call the Word Police!

Several solecisms popped up in print recently, provoking me to summon the Word Police to clean up the mess.

First I read that a well-known basketball coach was “loathe” to criticize the obviously mistaken call of a certain referee, meaning that he was “reluctant.” As the Word Police were far from loath to point out, the word should be “loath” (even though certain permissive modern dictionaries list both “loathe” and “loth” as alternates). Loathe, with an –e on the end, is a verb, meaning to “hate intensely or despise.” Both words are rooted in in Old English lað, meaning “hated, hateful, hostile, or repulsive.” It came into English from Proto-Germanic laithaz and is related to the French laid (“ugly”). The contemporary meaning with its lessened sense of “reluctant or disinclined” was first seen in the late 14th century.

Then I saw that a ruling by the Supreme Court had caused one legal question to become “mute.” Of course, what was meant was “moot.” The term now usually refers to a topic that is of “no practical importance, or purely hypothetical.” Originally, from the 12th century, moot was a noun meaning “assembly of freemen,” that is, a deliberative body, derived from Old English gemot (“meeting”). From this meaning came the adjectival use of moot as “debatable, arguable, undecided.” The term was often used by law schools to describe practice arguments of hypothetical cases, and from that usage it gained its present meaning. 

Mute, meaning “silent” is a late 14th-century word, derived from Old French muet and Latin mutus, with the same meaning, ultimately from the Greek myein (“to be shut, as of the mouth”).

Finally, someone reported on Facebook that she was blind-sighted by an unexpected turn of events. While the W. P. admit that this usage has a certain compelling logic, the term actually is blind-sided, alluding to “being hit from one’s blind side.”

Having done their duty, the Word Police respectfully tipped their caps and silently stole away.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has bestirred himself from his customary substance-induced torpor, to opine as follows:

            A playboy with two girlfriends was loath
            To pledge either young lady his troth,
                        Thus far as of yet
                        The two girls haven’t met,
            So he thinks he can hold on to both.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dangerous Words

Some accounts of the horrific assassinations at Charlie Hebdo in Paris referred to that satirical journal’s irreligious cartoons, which touched off the murderous barbarity, as “blasphemous.” Others said they were “sacrilegious.” What’s the difference?

Sacrilege means the “violation of or injury to a sacred object, person, or idea.” It was first noted in English around 1300 and derives from the Latin sacrilegium, meaning “temple robbery.” Its roots are sacrum (“sacred object”) and legere (“take”). It took on the broader meaning of “profaning anything sacred” by the late fourteenth century. (The second part of the adjective sacrilegious has nothing to do with the word religious, although many people think so and consequently misspell it.)

Blasphemy is a kind of sacrilege, specifically verbal, meaning “speaking ill about God or sacred things.” Its root is the Latin blasphemia and Greek blasphemos. The Greek word is formed from blaptikos (“hurtful”) and pheme  (“utterance”). The word entered English in the early 1300s.

If sacrilege is specifically physical, involving the destruction, damage, or theft of sacred objects, it is often called desecration, formed from de- (“do the opposite”) and “consecration” (“making holy”).

And, incidentally, in case you haven’t come across it elsewhere, the name Charlie Hebdo originated in the character of Charlie Brown in “Peanuts” comic strips, which were initially a regular feature of the magazine, plus hebdo, an abbreviation of hebdomadaire, which is French for a “weekly publication.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is following the prudent lead of Will Rogers, who, after satirizing Democrats, Republicans, and several other groups in his comic routine, remarked: “And then there’s the Ku Klux Klan (long pause)—you ain’t gonna catch me tellin’ no jokes about them.”

            I could make irreverent jokes
            About the poor benighted folks
            Whose creeds and violent acts convulsive
            I find repugnant and repulsive,
            I could be very funny--but            
            I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut.