They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases (The Writer's Studio)

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9781889330464: They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases (The Writer's Studio)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments/ ix

Introduction: Hearing Is Believing: The Cracks Between Our Worldviews, 1

1. Human Family Affairs: People Words, 13
2. You Are What You Say: Words of Power, 45
3. Dance of the Sexes: Men, Women, and the Words Between Them, 71
4. The Eye of the Beholder: Conceptions of Beauty, 92
5. Serious Business: Words About Work and Money, 113
6. States of Mind: Words, Thoughts, and Beyond, 137
7. Life Is But a Dream: The Jargon of Mental Technologists, 167
8. Spiritual Pathwords: The Map, the Territory, and the Mystery, 186
9. The Body Politic: Words and Social Action, 209
10. Toolwords: Technology and Worldviews, 232
Strange Memes: Language Viruses, 247

Afterword: Do You Know an Untranslatable Word?, 267
Bibliography, 269
Key to Sources Index, 281
The Author, 285


Hearing Is Believing: The Cracks Between Our Worldviews

This book is meant to be fun. Open it at random and see if you don't find something that will amuse you, entertain you, titillate your curiosity, tickle your perspective. But you should know that reading this book might have serious side effects at a deeper level. Even if you read one page as you stand in a bookstore, you are likely to find a custom or an idea that could change the way you think about the world. It has to do with the insidious way words mold thoughts.

It all started with a friendly lunch. Jeremy Tarcher is the kind of publisher a writer dreams about. He isn't likely to merge with a new multinational conglomerate every other week, as book publishers are wont to do, and he actually likes to sit down with authors and talk about ideas. During one of our brainstorming sessions, Jeremy mentioned his desire to publish a lexicon of "untranslatable words" that don't exist in English but would add a new dimension to original languages. Words that would open a window on the way other cultures encourage people to think and feel, and thus point out new ways for us to think and feel.

"Oh, you mean words like wabi," I said.

"Perhaps," he replied. "What does it mean?"

"It's a Japanese concept for a certain

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Which came first: The worldview, or the words to describe it? Very possibly the latter, argues the author of They Have a Word for It. "Finding a name for something," says Howard Rheingold, "is a way of conjuring its existence." While collecting words for this book, Rheingold says he "became sympathetic to the idea that we think and behave the way we do in large part because we have words that make these thoughts and behaviors possible, acceptable, and useful." Rheingold's refusal to pull together words for entertainment value alone--though many of these words, and Rheingold's commentary on them, are highly entertaining--is what has given this book (previously out of print) a kind of cult following.

Hawaiian contributes a word (ho'oponopono) here that means "solving a problem by talking it out"; Japanese, a term (kyoikumama) for a "mother who pushes her children into academic achievement"; Indonesian, a word (kekaku) meaning "to awaken from a nightmare"; and Mayan (some things, it seems, are universal), a concise way to say "stupid in-laws" (bol). While it is the Asian and obscure linguistic groups that seem to come up with the most "powerful" ideas, German wins for packing a whole sentence's worth of meaning into one (albeit long) word. How much happier Strunk and White would rest if we could just say Torschlüsspanik when discussing "the frantic anxiety experienced by unmarried women as they race against the 'biological clock'"; Treppenwitz when referring to the "clever remark that comes to mind when it is too late to utter it"; and Schlimmbesserung when lamenting "a so-called improvement that makes things worse." --Jane Steinberg

From the Publisher:

A reprint of the much-in-demand They Have a Word for It, by Howard Rheingold, is first on the list for a new series, The Writer’s Studio. Sarabande Books, a nonprofit literary publisher of poetry and short fiction, began the new series to feature books that challenge, stimulate, and support the writer of poetry and short fiction. These titles will not be how-to books, but books for writers who already know how and are looking for further stimulation, or to deepen and expand their sense of community with other writers. It will be a varied and interesting group of books, dedicated to the pleasures and value of the writing life.

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