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Careless Words

“That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” That’s a useful reminder from Arundhati Roy, author of the excellent novel, “The God of Small Things.” Some words carry connotations that are worse than others. Time.com is running a poll of readers to see what words from 2012 they think should be banished this year. Several, like “cray” and “cray-cray” instead of “crazy,” “jelly” instead of “jealous,” and “adokable” are “cloying and annoying” and suffer from inordinate cuteness. “Artisinal,” “YOLO” (acronym for “You only live once”) and “zombie apocalypse” smack of hipsterism and aging fads.

Over the years I’ve grown to abhor some overused fad words, like “robust” and “paradigm.” But there new, equally annoying ones are constantly emerging, such as “chillax” (combining chill and relax), “like” (as in “and then I’m all like…”), and especially “whatever.” For many language-lovers, an even higher level of exasperation arises from mispronounced words. A list of the “100 Most Often Mispronounced Words and Phrases” from http://Grammar.YourDictionary.com covers many of them, including “Arctic” (not “Artic”), “ask” (not “aks”), and “barbiturate” (not “barbiturate”). Included are some fundamental misconceptions as well: “carpool” instead of “carpul” tunnel, “chester” instead of “chest of” drawers, and a favorite from Texas, “bob” instead of “barb” wire.

Different lingual difficulties are provided in data from the vendors of CarPalx, software that allows changing keyboard layouts to make typing easier for specific typists, like programmers and the disabled, whose work requires the use of some specific letters more than others. CarPalx’s studies show that the hardest word to type is “zyzzyva” (tropical American weevils). Others include “pazazz,” “Zagzig” (a major Egyptian cotton center), and “Azazel” (a Biblical evil spirit of the wilderness), and “razzed.” The easiest was “kiddos,” followed by “duffles” and “khadis” (a cotton cloth from India).

It’s probably impossible to compare the physical grief of carpool tunnel sufferers trying to type “bezazzes” with the mental anguish of translators trying to gracefully explain an entirely foreign concept. “Ten Most Difficult Words to Translate” lists were compiled several years ago by staff members of ALTAlang.com, the translation services firm I mentioned last week. One suggestion was “jayrus” (“from Indonesian, meaning a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh”), and another was “mamihlapinatapei” (from Tierra del Fuego, “a wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are reluctant to start”).

The all-time hardest to translate, according to many professionals, is “ilunga” from the Congo. It means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time it occurs, to tolerate it the second time, but to neither forgive nor tolerate a third offense.” That seems lots easier than subtler concepts, such as “saudade” from Portugal and the Japanese expression, “wabi-sabi.” “Saudade” is “the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.” That’s far more clear-cut than “wabi-sabi,” which is described in a beautiful children’s picture book by that name written by Mark Reibstein as “a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious. It can be a little dark, but it is also warm and comfortable. It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than as an idea.”

Libraries are obviously loaded with wabi-sabi, and with “gemutlichkeit”, a similar expression from Germany. Pronounced “ge-MOOT-lik-kyt,” it’s described by www.ArtLex.com as “a quality akin to coziness that one finds in especially comfortable rooms – warm, friendly, welcoming, informal, and not too large.” That describes our local public libraries to a “T.” The new roof on Noel Wien Library has made it far warmer than past winters, and the “not too large” part certainly pegs the current tiny North Pole Branch Library, but planning for the new building that will replace it is progressing nicely.

Public libraries like ours are wonderful places to replenish one’s wabi-sabi and revel in gemutlichkeit, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As Steve Martin once noted, “Some people have a way with words, “and other people…oh, uh, not have way.”