Word Geek has had a little more time on her hands than usual and has cultivated a new etymological enthusiasm. Her latest passion has taken her around the world in search of wonderful foreign words that have no direct translation in English. Last week she was in Western Europe exploring some German terms. Today’s words are winging their way to you from East Asia.
The Asian continent is a linguistically complex and fascinating place where over 2,300 living languages are spoken. Many of which, such as Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Hmong are tonal, where tone is used to distinguish words that would otherwise be homonyms.
Word Geek was in a polyglot’s paradise when selecting her favourite East Asian words which could get lost in translation due to their lack of an English equivalent. She was struck by the beautiful meanings of these four.
侘寂 – Wabi-sabi
This philosophy is part of Japan’s culture and is deeply influenced by Buddhist teachings. A refuge from the modern world’s obsession with perfection, wabi-sabi is sometimes described as an appreciation of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete in nature. It is not only untranslatable, but also considered undefinable in Japanese culture. Often muttered in moments of profound appreciation, and almost always followed by the word muri! (impossible!) when the speaker is asked to expand.
한 – Han
Fans of The West Wing may already be familiar with this unique Korean term. In the eponymous episode, a North Korean pianist hoping to defect to the US says of han: “There is no literal English translation. It’s a state of mind. Of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there’s hope.” Accurately translating this elusive feeling, considered to be a fundamental feature of Korean culture, is heavily dependent on the context in which it is used. Many Koreans say han is more easily experienced than explained but is something intrinsically understood by their countrymen.
緣分 – Yuanfen
Have you met someone with whom you felt an immediate affinity? Or perhaps you’ve entered easily into a new business partnership or clicked instantly with someone on a romantic level? Then you’ve experienced yuanfen (緣分 in Chinese, duyên phận in Vietnamese). Incorporating the ideas of fate, destiny and serendipity, it also contains an element of perfect timing. Not only were you destined to meet, but it was fated to happen at a particular time. In the West, relationships are usually built over time, based on knowledge of the other party, but in Eastern cultures, it was or it wasn’t “meant to be”. When it’s meant to be, it’s yuanfen.
積ん読 – Tsundoku
Word Geek could not resist returning to Japan for the last word – tsundoku. This term could be used to describe Word Geek herself as it means a person who owns a lot of unread literature. The word doku can be used as a verb to mean reading, and the tsun in tsundoku originates in tsumu – a word meaning to pile up. She was reassured to discover this practice doesn’t carry stigma in Japan as she is prone to the occasional bout of bibliomania!