There’s a Word for That

Why is that despite the fact that the English language has hundreds of thousands of words, we have no single-word term for many emotions and other concepts that are specifically represented in other languages and that would be beneficial for everyday use?

For example, English has no word equivalent to gianxi, a Chinese term akin to but not the same as goodwill. (It refers to the social stock one accumulates by doing favors and bestowing gifts.) Nor is there any succinct translation of forelsket, the Norwegian word for the ecstasy of love in its early stages. (A concise definition is “the state of being enamored,” but even if enamoration were a word — and why isn’t it? — it doesn’t incorporate the context. Infatuation comes close but is not quite equivalent.)

My conclusion, after a bit of research, is that English speakers just aren’t trying hard enough. It’s true that the parent language of English, Anglo-Saxon, lets us down in matching single words to concepts, but English is very receptive to new vocabulary. (One comment attributed to a dictionary, though I couldn’t identify the specific source, is that “English acquires new words with the delicacy of a vacuum cleaner.”)

It is this adaptability that we must, for the most part, rely on. (I write “for the most part” because formation of new words is effortless: See enamoration above.) All we have to do is “borrow” from other languages. (I enclose borrow in raised eyebrows of irony becausesteal would be more accurate; we don’t give the words back.)

Turn to any page of a dictionary, and you’ll find at least one word acquired from a foreign language: Souvenir, from French. Contort, from Latin. Gymnast, from Greek. More recent acquisitions abound as well: Honcho, from Japanese. Cafeteria, from Spanish. Trek, from Afrikaans.

But our loanword word-hoard is woefully incomplete. From German, we haveschadenfreude, referring to the enjoyment of other’s misfortunes. But why hasn’t English appropriated pena ajena, an expression from Mexican Spanish that denotes embarrassment about another person’s humiliation? That would certainly come in handy.

The answer to my thesis question is this: There’s a word for almost everything, but it isn’t necessarily in the English lexicon — yet. English is constantly enriched by the accumulation and integration of vocabulary from other languages, but the only reason you wouldn’t say to me, expecting others to understand, “You’re such a pochemuchka” — that Russian word means “a person who asks too many questions” — is because we haven’t (yet) decided that the word’s useful enough to assimilate. Start introducing more foreign words into your writing, and you’ll build gianxi with me.


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