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Semantic Thrills; Yes, Generalissimo?

June 3, 2011 | by

Dear Lorin,
The Portuguese word
saudade connotes this beautiful expectation of nostalgia for a current moment. There’s a word that describes the place where your collarbone meets the neck. Tom Robbins makes up erleichda, a combination of a command, interrogation, and request to “lighten up.” Are there any such words in English? I know Shakespeare made up the word encorpsed, but it doesn’t seem to have settled in as comfortably to our vernacular.

You pose a deep question, Alex. By “any such words,” I take it you mean words with highly specific functions, words that it is hard to believe are single words. But seen in a certain light, most words are like that. Just now at the sandwich place down the street, the barista asked a customer whether he wanted a tray, then she pulled down one of those egg-carton thingies with the indentations in it for cups. And suddenly it seemed strange to me that we have such a short word, tray, for such a specific tool—a portable horizontal surface on which to carry prepared foodstuffs—that comes in so many shapes and sizes.

After all, get has the longest definition in the OED.

But maybe you are thinking specifically of new words. And yes, English is always full of those. In the sixteenth century, it must have been a semantic thrill to hear words like scapegoat and beautiful, both coined by William Tyndale for his translation of the Bible. Until then, no one knew a word for “the goat that you send off into the wilderness with your iniquities on its back,” or to say a thing was “characterized by beauty.” Some words still surprise me that way. German friends tell me they have no word for ear, in the sense of “you have a good ear.” To them the word is magic. (“That is why we will never have an Elmore Leonard.”)

And if saudade sounds exotic to you, try explaining to a Portuguese the exact meaning of fun.

Dear Editor,
Did I tell you about Generalíssimo Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco y Bahamonde, sometime Fascist ruler of Spain? In 1975, Franco was lying peacefully on his deathbed in the gorgeously appointed presidential palacio in Madrid, surrounded by doctors, nurses, colonels, cardinals, priests, nuns muttering the rosary, high officials, toadies, henchmen, et cetera. And outside, a vast crowd of hobbling, stunted Falangists converged from all corners of Spain, weeping, tearing their garments, beating their chests, crying, and sobbing—in other words making a pretty big uproar. Presently the Generalissimo opens an eye and croaks, “Luis?”—Luis was, let’s say, his private secretary—and, stealing forward, bending over the vast four-poster bed draped in red plush-velvet hangings emblazoned with the arms of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, Luis says, “Yes, Generalíssimo?” A long pause. “Luis?” repeats Franco, “what the hell is all that noise down there in the plaza?” Luis: “It’s the people, Generalíssimo. They’ve come to say good-bye.” This time there’s a much longer pause, at the end of which the Generalíssimo opens the same eye, and says, “Why, where are they going?”

You didn’t! But I am so glad you have.

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  1. M.M. | June 3, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I believe Portuguese is the correct spelling.

  2. M.M. | June 3, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    To have a good ear in German is “ein feines musikalisches Gehör haben.”

  3. Vergilio | June 3, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    I am Portuguese. Please try explaining to me the exact meaning of fun.


  4. Sadie Stein | June 3, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    I was recently told there’s a specific neologism for those cases in which we actively evoke an obsolete technology in modern life: ie, the gesture of pointing to one’s wrist to ask the time, even when said time will be checked on a phone; or the phrase “dial a number.” That said, I don’t remember the word, which had “anachronism” in it. Guess it hasn’t caught on.

  5. Yascha | June 4, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s last words reportedly were “Mehr Licht!” – more light!

    However, according to naysayers, Goethe had merely relapsed into his native Hessian dialect and, interrupted by death, was complaining: “Mer liecht… nischt gut” – I’m lying uncomfortably!

  6. Lorin Stein | June 6, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Dear Vergilio,

    I passed your very reasonable request along to the novelist John Beckman, who has made a formal study of the word and its relation to the national psyche. Beckman replies:

    “I’ve spent a decade tracking down what Americans call “fun,” a word which we inherited from the English, who have their own idea of fun. If your Portuguese had only a minute, I’d say we started having fun in 1627, before anybody knew what to call that awesome feeling of annoying Pilgrims by dancing around a Maypole – drunk, with Indians. By 1755, when Dr. Johnson called it ‘frolicksome delight,’ we were already using it for the things kids now get into with spray paint, skateboards, fireworks, firearms, and usually their least reputable friends. It’s like play with a dangerous little kick.”

  7. Tom May | June 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Dear Vergilio,

    I agree with novelist John Beckman’s suggestion that cavorting drunkenly with Indians around a flagpole in 1627 – or now for that matter – would have been fun; and that living dangerously is fun, too. But fun can also glow gently on a lazy summer day, on the green, under the sun, tossing a frisbee or not. Listen and laze to Sly Stone’s classic “Hot Fun in the Summertime” to capture the mood. O! you have it on? Then give me five.

  8. John Beckman | June 6, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Dear Vergilio,

    John Beckman here. (Thanks, Lorin.) You make a fine point, and Sly Stone is the cock of the walk when it comes to fun, but as fond as I am of that anthem of 1969, I think it even understates even Sly’s own best ideas of fun. Lazing around playing frisbee rules, in its way, totally, but I think Sly really nails it with his punchier, more upbeat single “Fun!” (maybe it doesn’t have an exclamation point) in which he also hints at this pleasure’s amorality: “You’ve sitting much too long, there’s a permanent crease between your right and wrong,” or something to that effect. But for that matter, there’s no lexical right or wrong with “fun,” which I think is why Lorin raised the question to begin with. So I’ll definitely give you five.


  9. Shelley | June 6, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    Saudade. Not many words contain, like reflecting mirrors, the past, the future, and the present.

  10. M.M. | June 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Shelley, in what way does a mirror contain the future?

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