A Few of My Favorite Words

Some of this is adapted from Howard Rheingold's "They Have A Word For It" (St. Martin Press, 1981). I've added a few words or changed some of his definitions. These words describe situations, relations, or things that exist in other languages because they have a word for it.


Japanese noun. Pronounced ah-WAH-reh. A sudden, brief awareness of the brevity and fragility of existence, such as a glimpse of a herd of deer running softly through a forest or noticing the sheen of moisture in a woman's eyes.


Spanish noun. A feeling that is shared by the group. Many cultures value individualism to the point of pretending that the social group doesn't exist. They ignore group-shared emotions, such as unifying jubilation of a victorious revolutionary crowd, the gemuetlichkeit of a German pub, or a hyggelig evening in Denmark.


German adjective. Pronounce geh-MUTE- lich. The comfort and openness of an intimate gathering of friends. Evenings in German homes are gemuetlich. In contrast, American TV living rooms are corporate marketing free-fire zones.


Danish, adjective. Pronounced HUE-geh-li. A winter evening with a warm wool blanket and a quiet fire and the dozing cat and close conversation with good friends is hyggelig.


Japanese noun. Communication not by words, but by body cues, stances, motions, glances, and winks. Men tend to focus on the exact words that are spoken. Women notice however the reluctance to meet one's eyes or the nervous hand movement. Spaniards can express themselves with a tilt of the head that many tourists don't see.


Japanese noun. It once meant "the shrine of broken needles" where one kept and respected the broken things that have served one. Westerners toss everything without sentimentality. But the Japanese have learned to be Westerners and now, if one can believe it, they are more materialistic than Westerners.


German noun. The research into the history of ideas. Ideas don't fall from the sky. For example, the idea that God doesn't exist only first occurred in the 18th century. It was made possible by the idea that one could prove that God existed and that only first happened in the 14th and 15th century. Before that, no one thought to prove that God existed because it was obvious that he did exist. The Bible never considered whether he existed nor did it try to prove this. The Rationalists thought they were doing a favor to theology by proving his existence. This however brought his very existence into doubt, and thus shortly afterwards the entire matter became irrelevant. Germans research the centuries of history, politics, literature, languages, philosophy, and history to trace back the origins, development, meaning, relations, and impact of ideas.


Swedish. "Enough, sufficient, just right". Lagom also implies perfection, as in "just the right amount for something to be perfect," or, "it hits the spot". How much coffee to pour? How much money should you have? Is that dress appropriate? It's lagom.


Sanskrit noun. Illusion. The root word "ma-" means the measure or structure. Maya is the results that are created. Western pragmatism thinks that things are what they are. We see trees and mountains, but not nature. We use words and names, but forget that these are just tags. We create and live in a world of words, such as political structures, credit cards, legal relationships, etc., and forget the unseeable world that creates these.


New Guinea noun. The truth that everyone knows but no one admits. I'd give examples which we'd all know are true, but... well, it's better left unsaid. There's plenty of mokita in your office, in social politics, and among your friends.


Japanese noun. By definition, this can't be defined! To be mu means to think without words, without categories, without distinctions, in short, to think without thinking. This may seem to be a paradox, but that's only because of our philosophical tradition from Socrates. You constantly think mu, such as when you drive your car, but our language doesn't have words or structures to describe this. If you insist that if it can't be said then it doesn't exist, or that everything you do is deliberately thought out, then you're a fish who doesn't believe in the existence of water.


Japanese noun. The patina of age. Americans likes their things to be brand new. They scrubbed the Statue of Liberty to remove the copper's green patina. Modern skyscrapers are sheathed in thin sheets of foam that's printed to look like marble; every few years, the foam plates are replaced so that the building always looks new. The next time you're walking past a new skyscraper, push your finger into it. Europeans and Asians however like the patina that arises from the centuries, such as the softness of worn granite or the browning in one's favorite tea cup.


British noun. Finding good things by chance while enjoying one's random travels. Taking a long drive on a Saturday and finding a secluded beach where one has a great afternoon. This can also include finding things while fooling around on the web.


Chinese verb. The understanding that lets one take things lightly. When you're certain of your skill, you face situations with a relaxed confidence. The opposite is concerned, purposive action. Western culture since Socrates valued attentive thought. Heidegger however showed this is a fundamental mistake.


Chinese noun and verb. Pronouced "dao". The way that nature develops. This can be the flow of a raindrop on your window pane or the way a human is born, lives, and dies.


Japanese noun. A flaw that gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. Western culture sees beauty in mass produced technical symmetry, such as a Porsche Boxster. Japanese however appreciate the wabi of a cracked tea cup that distinguishes it from all other tea cups. This can be as simple as the tiny crack in one's favorite cup. It can also be handmade books or dinners that you've made from scratch. Everyone's face has wabi.


Korean noun. The unwillingness to let go of the illusions, thus causing the suffering. When one is in a bad relationship, a bad job, or a bad political situation, one refuses to exit the relationship and one suffers. Our racist, militarist, enviromentally destructive political structure continues because we let them do it. One day, the East Germans stopped believing their government and a few days later, it just collapsed.


Japanese noun. A relaxed alertness. Many people think that to be relaxed is to escape from one's surroundings; my cat dozes on the window sill and is aware of everything.