Word perfect

The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World

Adam Jacot de Boinod <em>

In 1948, the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote a one-act play called The Bald Soprano. Inspired by Ionesco's attempts to learn English, it portrays a couple communicating entirely through the language of a conversation primer, or phrase book. ("This is the ceiling. That is the floor. Waiter! Bring me my chamber pot!") Few people who have seen it can resist reaching for the nearest phrase book and laughing at its contents.

Adam Jacot de Boinod will surely have the same effect on foreign language dictionaries. The words he includes in his delightfully absurd compendium express concepts, emotions and facial hair arrangements that you probably hadn't thought of, let alone put a name to.

While researching for the BBC quiz programme QI, Jacot de Boinod dipped into an Albanian dictionary and discovered that it contained 27 words for "moustache", including fshes (a long broom- like moustache with bristly hairs) and the more stylish mustaqe posht (a moustache that droops down at both ends). He was hooked. From Portuguese to Icelandic, from Turkish to Nicaraguan Ulwa, he scoured the world's languages and came across such irresistible words as pembonceng (Indonesian for "someone who likes to use other people's facilities") or tingo (Easter Island Pascuense for "to borrow things from a friend's house one by one until there is nothing left").

I could give many more examples, but for some reason my copy keeps falling open at the page which reveals that up-retiree-hue is an Easter Island word for "to touch one's penis with the intention of masturbating", while female masturbation in Japanese is shiko shiko manzuri, meaning "ten thousand rubs". (Ouch!)

It is beyond the scope of this light-hearted book to explore what these words tell us about their cultures (Jacot de Boinod does not speculate if Japanese women are generally slow to excite, or if Easter Islanders are particularly light-fingered). But even so, much of interest is revealed simply by the words that the book includes. We all know that Inuit has dozens of words for snow, but The Meaning of Tingo reveals that Somalian has an equivalent number for camel, ranging from awradhale (a stud camel that always breeds male camels) to sidig (one of two female camels suckling the same baby camel). Persian camels include a nakhur (one that refuses to give milk until her nostrils are tickled). Tragically, when the four-wheel drive ousts the camel, or the snow-mobile supplants the Arctic reindeer-sleigh, words such as these lose their point. In linguist-speak, they become moribund. And so more of the world's linguistic diversity withers away.

Having said that, most vocabularies are pretty narrow, and I suspect that many of Jacot de Boinod's words are ones that not even the locals use. After all, Chamber's Dictionary lists thousands of words that are unknown to the English and would make any foreigner chuckle. But it is also true that English often lacks words we need. When I introduce my sister-in-law, is she my husband's sister or my brother's wife or my husband's brother's wife? Is she my husband's older or younger sister? Is she the wife of my older or my younger brother? Sami, spoken in the Arctic, precisely identifies all these relationships.

This book will not make you utouto (Japanese for falling into a light sleep without realising it), nor will it inspire litost (Czech for the state of torment created by the sudden realisation of one's own misery), but it probably will make you begadang (Indonesian for staying up talking all night). It might make you mukamuka (Japanese for feeling so angry you feel like throwing up), but it is more likely that you will sekaseka (Bemba, Congo and Zambian for laugh without reason).

The one word The Meaning of Tingo lacks in any language is "great loo reading". Perhaps a New Statesman reader can supply it. Incidentally, The Bald Soprano, written in French as La Cantatrice Chauve, is translated on a Romanian website as The Professional Singer Bald Person.

Helena Drysdale is the author of Mother Tongues (Picador)