Humour abounds in all the languages of the world. I dedicated five years of my life to discovering the variety and wackiness of global culture by rifling through the respective dictionaries of the world’s languages in order to unearth a wonderful treasure trove of oddities peculiar to individual cultures.
I started to collect favourites, including nakhur, a Persian word which translates as ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’ and hanyauka, from the Rukwangali, spoken in Namibia, which means ‘to walk or tiptoe on warm sand’.
Many described strange or unbelievable things. How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a marilopotes, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coal dust’? And what exactly does ampo (the Malay for edible earth) comprise? Could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb tsuji-giri, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’? And where would you expect to find a cigerci, the Turkish for ‘a seller of liver and lungs’?
Others express concepts that seemed all too familiar. We have all met a Zechpreller, ‘someone who leaves without paying the bill’; worked with a neko-neko, the Indonesian for ‘one who has a creative idea which only makes things worse’; or spent too much time with either an ataoso, the Central American Spanish for ‘one who sees problems with everything’ or anedovtipa (Czech): one who finds it difficult to take a hint.
The gender dynamics of Japan are richly expressed with two extremes of women’s intense relationship with clothes. At one end there is nitto-onna, a woman so dedicated to her career that she has no time to iron blouses and so resorts to dressing only in knitted tops; and at the other there are ippaiyoku, women whose every garment and accessory are made by the same designer.
Once married, some accept their fate only too readily, such as sokozuma, a woman who settles for a less-than perfect marriage just to get it out of the way or minekokon, a woman who gives up a high-powered job in the city for a dull life in the country with a quiet husband.
The males seem to have their own distinct style: okuri-okami is a man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to try and molest her once he gets in the door (literally, a ‘see-you-home wolf’) while koro is the hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking into one’s body.
Sub-Saharan languages express some unique tribal notions: mmbwe (Venda, South Africa) is a round pebble taken from a crocodile’s stomach and swallowed by a chief. Kentenga (Tsonga, South Africa) means to find oneself suddenly without some vital item (of a man whose only wife has run away, or a hut roof blown off) and kapita mwene (Mambwe, Zambia) is the time of the stroll taken by the chief (9pm to 10pm; when everyone has retired, the chief would go about quietly, eavesdropping to find out those talking about him).
Northern Europe has its own unique contributions with areodjarekput (Inuit) to exchange wives for a few days only; sneisar-hald (Old Icelandic) the part of a sausage in which the pin is stuck, and poronkusema (Finnish), literally, reindeer’s piss ‒ or the distance a reindeer can travel without a comfort break (about 5km).
Closer to home we have learnt to articulate all sorts of eccentric behaviour, such as the schoolboy’s pastime shangle (Cumbrian dialect) to fasten a tin or kettle to a dog’s tail. No doubt they grew up to become those involved in the racing world practice known as feague, which was to put ginger up a horse’s fundament, to make him lively and carry his tail well.
Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words From Around The World. Image credit: Creative Commons See-ming Lee