Logophile Tuesday: A Face in Need of a Fist
English contains more words than is in any way necessary for clear and specific communication. The Oxford English Dictionary contains in excess of six hundred thousand words, and yet, we still seem to lack means of expressing some critical concepts in less than a sentence.
English has had a rocky history and has been assaulted by as many languages as it has pillaged. Even now, as it attempts to conquer new lands, it does not escape the conflict unscathed and it ends up having aliens take up residence and claim citizenship. As it stealthily infiltrates other languages, their spies sneak back in and end up in the mouths of native speakers.
Shadenfreude, the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, is a word so German that most westerners can’t even pronounce it. Even so, it has become widely adopted, due in no small part to the dire need for a word describing the enjoyment of reality television. Backpfeifengesicht, another german creation that is even more of a mouthful, is growing in popularity as it describes a face in desperate need of a fist, which describes most of the commenters on youtube.
Cosplay, is a portmanteau of unusual heritage. It was created by the Japanese out of borrowed English words and then stolen back by American teenagers and spread like a virus until it was in common use.
Are there other words that should be pillaged for the benefit of all? Is it even right to do so? Does this fall under the dark tide of cultural appropriation, or is it sharing valuable tools of communication, and where is that muddy line drawn?
I love a good word pillaging, but it’s good of you to raise the question of cultural appropriation. Language evolves to fit the need of its speakers. Selfies, cosplay, and most recently “Columbusing” (The act of discovering a thing for white people) are words that just sort of showed up. Policing language has historically had little to no effect, except making people uncomfortable with le casse-croute when they could be saying le snackbar. I tend to prefer inventing words to stealing them purely because I’m better at inventing words than unearthing them, but a linguistic trend I’d love to borrow for English is the German or even Irish-Gaelic way of having feelings.
In German, you don’t say “I am hungry” or “I am afraid” but “Ich habe hunger” or “Ich habe angst”. Habe, from haben, is the verb “To have” They’re things that you possess, not things that you are. They’re not essential to you, and it seems to empower the way people think about feelings. In Irish-Gaelic, the word for being sad implies that sadness has come upon you. Feelings are like the weather, they’re things that happen, and things that pass. The English notion of essentializing feelings is one that could stand to go, I think.