The Friday Fillip: Les Mots Justes

Every so often there’s nothing for it but to resort to words. I know these are our stock in trade and as such can overstay their welcome. It’s for that reason that the Friday Fillip usually paints you pretty pictures or invites you into some silly but entertaining time-waster of a game—the equivalent of the “Ohne Wörte” [without words] caption that gets put at the bottom of cartoons in Germany that, well, have no words (apparently so that you don’t blow your entire day hunting for the explanatory text). But, as you’ll likely have guessed, I’m veering into the word zone today. To make it interesting, however, I’m taking you out of your comfort zone and into foreign languages.

It’d be too easy (for you, I mean) if I simply went straight to Mandarin or Dutch, for instance. So I’m going to unusual words, words that foreigners have that English doesn’t possess—because I know that Slawyers are a skeptical lot (thank goodness) and will likely have some fun challenging this assertion.

My starting place is the article 15 Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent in Mental Floss (tagline: “Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix”—so some of you are bound to wander away from the tour at this point.). We learn here, for example, that the Turkish word “Gumusservi” means “means moonlight shining on water” and that “Vybafnout” in Czech means to “jump out and say boo.” There’s a baker’s dozen more of such words.

I took a crack at decoding Gummusservi using Google search and Google Translate. The first problem is to put it into Turkish script. I think that it’s gümüş servi — two words, note—which Google Translate tells me means “silver cypress” and which happens to be the title of a poem, unsurprisingly. Hmm.

The Mental Floss list comes from a book by Adam Jacot de Boinod (for which, one is tempted to say, there is no word in English) titled The Meaning of Tingo. Thanks to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, we can roam around a little within this source. Here I became distracted for a while. Eventually I searched for Gumusservi (have to log in to do a search) and found exactly what Mental Floss had promised. But I was now in the “weather” section of the book, where I learned that serein in French means “fine rain falling from a cloudless sky.” My battered old print dictionary tells me, though, that serein can mean either “calm” (sky) or “evening dew”.

By then, however, I’d discovered that my search within The Meaning of Tingo had landed me just above the Meteorological Metaphors section, so because “aven solon har fläckar” as the Swedes say—”even the sun has got spots” meaning that no one is perfect—I wandered off course myself. You will have noticed, I suspect.

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  1. Thank you for taking Slawyers in the realm of languages. I have reposted this post in numerous translator forums, as many are interested in the nexus between law and languages, particularly those of us who are lawyer-linguists or legal translators.