By Jane Bauer
“When we name an inanimate object, we are intentionally building a relationship, elevating it to a character in our lives. Not only do we feel closer to things that we name, but perhaps we name our things in order to feel closer to them.”
Kathryn Hymes in The Atlantic
Words. Where would we be without them? We marvel at a baby’s first words- usually little more than a gurgle, we learn the names of objects, we learn to read, we learn to manipulate and interpret their meanings and along the way we take them for granted, until the day when we start losing them one by one.
In translation, beyond word substitution, there are gaps of meaning within languages. We’ve all heard about how some tribes in the Arctic have 50 words for snow. There are other languages that have words that give more specific meaning to things, such as the German word Treppenwitz which translates to stairs (treppen) + wit- and means “the perfect retort that comes too late”, what you didn’t respond in the heat of the moment because you only thought of it while you were already leaving. I need at least seven English words to describe what this German word captures with one. By the way it’s a noun, in case you were wondering how to integrate it into your speech. German is full of amazing compound words like Lebensmüde, which means “life-tired”.
In Iceland they have Gluggaveður – which describes when the weather looks pleasant from your window, but is actually really cold and you need a jacket. Gluggaveður literally means “window-weather”.
One of my favorite words is the Japanese Komorebi, which refers to the scattered sunlight that filters through the leaves on the trees. So poetic and gentle feeling. What do you think… noun or adjective? If you are a native English speaker I bet you guessed it is an adjective because it feels so descriptive. It is actually a noun which makes it even cooler because it is a thing, it has form, it’s more than a description- it’s a slice of a moment and the Japanese have captured it with a word, naming it gives it heft.
This month our writers explore the naming of things. On the surface this topic feels flat but it is anything but. Naming is the first act bestowed upon us when we are born. Attaching words to things, people and emotions is how we find our place in the world and give form to our experiences. In fact, naming is such serious business that many countries have regulations regarding naming. In Mexico, in the state of Sonora, the name Hermione is banned, as is the name Robocop. Sarah is a banned name in Morocco, although without the ‘h’ it is permissible. Linda is banned in Saudi Arabia due to its association with Western culture.
Names have so much power. In Harry Potter there is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Judaism avoids mentioning G-d other than when reading the torah. This is because he is thought to transcend the word as no word can capture the essence of G-d.
And for when you start forgetting the names of things or people, the Hawaiian language has Pana Po’o – the act of scratching your head in an attempt to remember something you’ve forgotten.
See you next month,