shadow

Borrowed words spice up English

English tends to gobble up useful foreign words. Some wonderful words are not even knocking on the door of English, however.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Cayenne peppers (red), bird's eye chili peppers (green), and habanero peppers (orange), are seen on March 25, 2015 in Hingham, Massachusetts.

What are some words that we don’t have in English but should? A reader asked this question and suggested picante as an example. This is a common Spanish word, which identifies the taste and mouthfeel of foods containing lots of chili peppers. We can describe this taste as “spicy hot” in English, but “hot” can refer to temperature as well, and “spicy” covers everything from “pleasantly cinnamon-y” to “ghost-pepper-mouth-on-fire.” Much more precise to say picante.

English tends to gobble up useful foreign words, like schadenfreude, a German word for joy in the misfortunes of others. This one has been employed by English-speakers since the 19th century and appears in several dictionaries, so it may well be considered part of the English language and not a loanword anymore. 

Hygge – Danish for a feeling of contentment engendered by comfort and coziness – has also started appearing in English dictionaries. Dozens of books have been published in recent years extolling the Scandinavian virtues of good friends, warm beverages, and candlelight, but hygge is so hard to pronounce (“higga”? “hoo-gah”? actually something like “hue-gah”) that it may never be as useful as schadenfreude, even though it is a far nicer idea.

Some wonderful words are not even knocking on the door of English, however. Firgun is found in modern Hebrew and means “tooting someone else’s horn,” making it roughly the opposite of schadenfreude. If you complement someone for form’s sake but don’t mean it, that’s not firgun. You must be genuinely happy for the success of others, feeling an “empathetic joy” in their good fortune.

There are two Japanese words that, I would argue, we should import into English right away. Wabi-sabi expresses the beauty of imperfection, simplicity, and transience. A bowl possessing wabi-sabi might be tarnished, cracked, or not perfectly round, but these “flaws” impart to it a melancholy beauty because they reveal both its history and its impermanence. 

Shibui is a related term, describing “an aesthetic that only time can reveal,” as Christopher Moore writes in his book “In Other Words: An Illustrated Miscellany of the World’s Most Intriguing Words and Phrases.” A vintage jacket, a classic car, a restaurant that has been serving the same delicious omelets for 40 years, all demonstrate shibui; the latest iPhone and angular houses full of stainless steel do not. 

Shibui captures the idea, Moore explains, that as we age and accumulate experience, “we radiate with a beauty that stems from becoming fully ourselves.” As a person who has been marked by a fair bit of experience, I hope these two words make it into English dictionaries as soon as possible.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.