Friday, February 23, 2007

New words

In The Interpreter, the brother of the main character Silvia Broome (played by Nicole Kidman) used to write down words that he liked as a kid. There are great words in all languages, the best ones are those that are untranslatable to any other language. I remember (from primary school, or somewhere very far away) that there are two types of meaning that words have, denotations, or their literary meaning and connotations, the suggestive meaning. Semantics are more complex than that, but that will do for now - the untranslatable words are so impregnated with connotations, contextual associations, emotions and often have a history that is entwined with the history of the people using that language.

Good words also taste good, they feel nice when you say them. Words in second, third etc. languages tend to group into good and not so good on different grounds than those of the mother tongue - probably because some of their connotational "luggage" isn't translated, and the judgement is done more on purely aesthetic grounds or just for their entertainment value. It's a bit like kids when they find words that are fun to repeat and chant out loud, irrespective of their content, sometimes to their parents' horror...

For instance, of all the French words I know, the one that comes to mind in this context is inoubliable. It's silly, but I like it, and it somehow reminds me of Paris, but probably the kind of Paris I've never actually seen. (And it would make a great mocking chant for kids.)

In English, I'd have a list of words that I especially like, but I never get around to writing them down. If I buy that Moleskine I've been thinking about (my mind is like a sieve these days, or more like a black hole), I'll probably start writing the list.

There is one word that I sort of love to hate, as it is such a perfect embodiment (I don't think you can say that about a word...) of the phenomenon: one-upmanship. It's a brilliantly coined term (by Stephen Potter, according to Wikipedia) and describes the behaviour of people who compulsively try to outdo others in everything, no matter how insignificant the task is. My association of this is the fussy parent baking cakes to their son Rupert's school fair, and instead of just baking a cake, s/he has it glazed with the school logo and motto in Latin, and then brings it to school on a Royal Doulton plate as "anything else would look too... Ikea-ish". The term somehow manages to perfectly convey the smugness and artificiality of the people who do these kinds of things.

By the way, there are also a lot of words I absolutely hate and loath and would like to strike out of use and into oblivion (oblivion is a good word); most of them are the ones that occur regularly in the vocabulary of estate agents and management consultants. The worst one is wow-factor. I just don't get how a bathroom or a loo can have that, apart from perhaps in the case that they top the listings in

I almost forgot the word that I learned today, which also prompted me to write this entry. I really should get that notebook. The word is steampunk. Yes, it's sort of related to cyberpunk but less dystopian (another great word). It's a genre of literature/film/lifestyle that idolises the technology and style of the steam-powered era, the industrial revolution without bounds. Brass, mechanics rather than electronics and steam power instead of combustion engines are all the hype. Jules Verne's science fiction and the works of the greatest Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (can there be a greater name...) are inspirations for adorers of steampunk. The term is about 20 years old, as the trend began to emerge in the turn of 80's and 90's, but I only learned it today, after stumbling across a link to this project: modifying a computer keyboard to look like a 100 year old typewriter.

After taking a look at the page, and reading about the term, I realised that I'd just seen a brilliant steampunk film: Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky. This Studio Ghibli (of Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle -fame) epic animation features robots, planes, trains and flying ships that are like straight off Verne's pages. And I guess my fascination (don't like this word, sounds like fascism) with Babbage's difference engine suggests I might have a strain of this bug as well.

(Pic: screenshot from Castle in the Sky, copied from

No comments: