I recently found a book by the writer Adam Jacot de Boinod called The Meaning of Tingo. As a native speaker of English, I was a bit confused. I had never heard of this word ‘tingo’,and was curious about the title of the book.
As I soon found out, even if you are not a native speaker, then going to your dictionary and looking up the word ‘tingo’ will not help. In fact, you probably won’t find the word ‘dinothere at all, and not least because of the fact that ‘tingo’ is notan English word. ‘Tingo’, it seems, is one of very many words that cannot be translated into English – or at least one of those words that are very difficult to try and translate into English, or even into your own native language.
The book The Meaning of Tingo is a kind of dictionary, but perhaps a dictionary you will not find useful in the same way that your usual dictionary is. The Meaning of Tingo is a list of words from languages all over the world that have very specific, not to say very unusual, meanings. English is a language that has always been omnivorous, taking words from other languages to enrich its own vocabulary. English has taken the words ‘pyjamas’ from Hindi to describe the loose clothes you may wear when you go to bed,’ croissant’ from French to describe a particular kind of sweetbread roll, ‘catastrophe’ from Greek to describe a particularly bad event, and ‘angst’ from German to describe a particular mixture of fear and anger. And these are just a few of themany examples of words that English has made its own. However, it is interesting to look at words that even a greedy language such as English has not (at least yet) made its own. Japanese, for example, may have given us ‘manga’ to describe a particular style of comic book, but the English have not yet adopted the useful expression ‘katahara itai’ –laughing so much that your stomach hurts. The Japanese, it seems, have many such useful words – another one for example, is ‘bakku-shan’ – a girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front. Have you ever wanted to say that in merely one word? Now you can.
As well as Japanese, it seems that German is also a useful language. German often makes ‘compound words’ – one or more words joined together to make a new word. ‘Putzfimmel’ for example, is a mania for cleaning while ‘Backpfeifengesicht’ apparently describes the kind of face that people want to hit. Jacot de Boinod’s book is not only amusing, but, he claims, shows the way in which a language is inextricably linked tothe culture in which it is spoken. Is it really true, then, that in Germany there are a lot of people who have faces that other people want to punch? Or that Japan has more than its share of ‘bakku-shan’? The reader may not at first be convinced by this, but when you read that Hawaiians have 108 words forsweet potato, 65 for fishing nets and 47 for banana (simply because in Hawaii there are indeed 108 different kinds of sweet potato, 65 fishing nets and 47 different types of banana), it makes more sense. Albanians are famous for their moustaches – and indeed the Albanian language contains 27different words for moustache – ‘madh’ for example, is a bushy moustache, ‘posht’ is a moustache hanging down at the ends while a ‘fshes’ is a long moustache with short hairs. People from Holland and Belgium appear to be more fun loving. Dutch has a word, ‘uitwaaien’ – ‘walking in windy weather for fun’, while people in the Netherlands apparently often go to ‘plimpplampplettere’. What are they doing? Just think about the sound – they are skimming stones on water.
More evidence of this link between language and culture can be seen in the words that different languages have for jobs that exist only in their cultures. Some of these jobs are pretty unusual: a ‘koshatnik’ in Russian is a dealer in stolen cats, while Spanish speakers in Central America often have to work with an ‘aviador’ – a government employee who shows up only on payday.
So, what exactly does ‘tingo’ mean then? Well, to find that out, you’ll just have to find the book. No, not really. It’s from the Pascuense language of Easter Island, meaning ‘to borrow objects from a friend’s house, one by one, until there’s nothing left’.
Some reviewers of the book have said that it contains a number of mistakes – for example, on the etymology, or explanation of where words come from. They have also said that many definitions lack explanation, which suggests that his research is really quite superficial. Perhaps most importantly, one reviewer noted that de Boinod writes that the word ‘papa’ is used to mean ‘father’ in 70 per cent of all languages in the world. This seems interesting, but then there viewer points out that as there are more than 6,000 languages in the world (a fact that de Boinod includes), this means that he must have looked at around 4,200 languages –when he says that he looked at only 270 dictionaries.
greedy : wanting more than you need
inextricably : (in a way that is) impossible to separate from something
punch : hit hard with your closed hand
skimming : move quickly over the top of
show up : arrive or appear
- Vocabulary gap fill. Now use the five words/phrases to fill the gaps in the sentences below:
- I agreed to meet them at eight o’clock but they didn’t ………
- When boxers train, they have a special bag to ………
- The plane was ……… the tops of the trees before crashing into the mountain.
- You’ve had three cakes already. Don’t be ………
- Many scientists believe that climate change is ……… linked to human activity.
Comprehension: answer the five questions using information from the article:
- Why can’t you find the word ‘tingo’ in an English dictionary?
- How many examples does the writer give of borrowed words and which languages are they from?
- Which language has lots of words for facial hair?
- Which language has words for outdoor leisure activities?
- How did de Boinod research his book?
- show up
- It is not English, it is Pascuense
- Four: Hindi, French, Greek and German
- He looked in 270 dictionaries