In Other Words by Christopher J. Moore
The American language is a pastiche of borrowed words from across the world. We borrowed from British English, of course. Then words and phrases (“hunters’ moon,” for example) were appropriated from Native Americans and the other cultures—Spanish, Dutch, German, and Portuguese—that came to our shores. A country rich in multiculturalism, even though it did not know that, was growing rich in its language. In other words, the language we speak was beginning—and now continuing—its long-term evolution. But this appropriation of words and the application of more than one meaning were not confined to just the United States.
The same is true of countries around the world. In this updated edition of In Other Words, Christopher J. Moore has added a score of new entries to his catalogue of words and phrases along with colorful illustrations by Lan Truong. It is the terroir of language that Moore explores. Just as the “mixture of soil, climate, geographical location…express themselves in the finished product,” a rich mixture of cultures broadens our experiences. Many of the phrases from across the world prove that cultures are less different than some would have us believe. For example, the ancient Persian dast u del bãz budan (DAST oo DEL BOZ boo-DAN) literally means “the opening of hand and heart,” or showing generosity toward others, a common thought across many cultures. A German doppelgänger (DOP-ple-GENGE-er) is a “double goer,” or more usually just someone who looks like another.
Moore provides a pronunciation guide (the all-caps syllables indicate where the emphasis lies in each phrase) and an index to the words contained in five regions that include Asia and the Middle East, Europe, Far North, Ancient World, and Farther Afield. Each section is preceded by a very helpful introduction. The first section explores concepts such as “face” or time. There is no word for the Western concept of “compromise” in Arabic; however, taraadin (tah-RAH-din) “implies a happy solution for everyone…a way of resolving a problem without anyone losing face.” The Japanese shibui (shib-OO-ee) suggests that as time passes into age “we radiate with a beauty that comes from being fully ourselves.” There is another timely phrase that springs readily to mind: although not in this volume, mai pen rai (my-pen-RYE) is a Thai phrase meaning that time is not so important, that it does not matter.
The Algonquin powwow (POW-wow) meant a “gathering of medicine men…to perform a healing ceremony.” Now it is an opportunity for people to simply talk in general or to address a particular issue. At the time of this writing, in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record, one can be buoyed by the Norwegian utepils (OOT-er-pillss), “the first drink of the year taken out of doors.” It is still cold but the days are finally getting longer after the interminable dark winter, and it is time to celebrate. It offers hope that better days are coming.
The French esprit de l’escalier (es-SPREE-der-less-KAL-iay) is a “witty remark that occurs to you too late, literally on the way down the stairs.” For those who review books, it is that perfect phrase that springs to mind upon seeing a review in print!
In his brief introduction Simon Winchester writes, “People who are not us speak, write, and do things that are alien…but when explained, make an awful lot of sense.” That is a way of understanding others and is a “prime benefit (aside from the serendipitous pleasures of browsing) of the delightful treasure house—literally thesaurus—of the linguistic marvels that follow.” That is a grand description of a book that is a bona fide joy to browse and appreciate.