Semantic Thrills; Yes, Generalissimo?


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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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