The Editor’s Desk: Finding the right word

The Editor’s Desk: Finding the right word

There are all sorts of situations that we need an English word for. Here are a few.

There’s a word in German—backpfeifengesicht—which translates to “a face in need of a fist”, or a punchable face. The French have the phrase l’esprit d’escalier, which literally translates to “the spirit of the staircase”, but colloquially means an occasion when you think of the perfect retort to someone’s comment only when you get to the bottom of the stairs on your way out the door, and it’s too late to make your zinger effective. Scottish people have the word tartle, used to describe the nerve-wracking moment just before you have to introduce someone whose name is on the tip of your tongue but refuses to make its way to your brain.

The English language has been described as one that doesn’t just borrow from other languages; it beats them up in a back alley, goes through their pockets, and steals what’s there. We need to steal—I mean borrow—the above words and phrases, and many other useful ones from foreign languages, which convey ideas or concepts that we simply don’t have a word for in English.

But why stop there? The language of Shakespeare is surely up to the task of coming up with new words to describe everyday situations that there just isn’t any word for (yet). Herewith a few examples of situations that desperately need a word to describe them.

1) That feeling you get when you find yourself somewhere in the house, can’t think what on Earth you’re doing there, and mentally retrace your steps for any clues. “Let’s see: I was standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window, and saw that the branches on the tree needed trimming, which made me think of pruning shears, which made me remember that the last time I used them was to trim the Christmas tree, which reminded me that I found some pine needles on the floor when I moved the armchair in the living-room: that’s it, I came down to get the vacuum cleaner!”

2) The mixed feeling of friendliness, confusion, and guilt that compels you to wave to someone in a passing car who waves to you, even if you are confident that you have never seen them before in your life.

3) The moment when you decide to check your email, make a phone call, or go to the bathroom and your toddler — who has blissfully ignored you all day as she watches Moana for the umpteenth time — makes a beeline for you and starts screaming as if she is being attacked by Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and the Hound of the Baskervilles.

4) The sinking suspicion, when the server brings the meals to your table and you survey what everyone else has ordered, that you really should have gone with the beef ribs after all.

5) The mixed emotions when, after the stylist has made the first four or five fatal snips, you suspect that the decision to dramatically alter your hairstyle was not, in fact, a good one.

6) The compulsive obssession to check on the location of everyone’s passports multiple times between leaving the house and getting to the border crossing.

7) On a related note, that sickening feeling that causes you to wake up in the middle of the night during the first day of your vacation wondering if you locked the front door/turned off the coffeemaker/left the patio door open/gave the cat-sitter the key to the house.

8) The nail-biting tension you feel as your teenaged child, freshly-acquired “N” in hand, makes her first solo trip to Kamloops, and you find yourself making rapid-fire calculations about how long she’s been gone, where she should be by now, and when you can reasonably expect her to call you and say she’s arrived safely.

I’m sure there are other situations for which we need le mot juste. In the meantime, I’ll check and see if someone else has come up with a word in another language that we can appropriate for any of the above. I’m sure they’re out there.

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