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May I have a word: Filling some holes in English

Other languages have words for a bad haircut, a joke that’s so bad it’s good, or the feeling of excitedly awaiting a friend’s arrival. Why not ours?

Did someone at this event in Bali, Indonesia, tell a good joke? Or was it a "jayus"?SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP via Getty Images

Last time, I invited you to come up with English equivalents for 10 words from other languages that are said to have no English translation. It was a lot of homework to give you all at once, and you’ve probably been busy with other things. So I was pleased to receive what struck me as worthy coinages for nine of the 10. Some readers sent me long lists of proposed translations — thank you! — so below you’ll see their names turn up more than once.

Here’s what I got:

As a translation for age-otori, which is Japanese for a disastrous, wear-a-hat-until-it-grows-out haircut, Dana Robbins, of Millbury, and Marc McGarry, of Newton Highlands, took their cues from coif and coiffure to propose coiffensive and coiffiasco, respectively. Bob Mangano, of Natick, thought tressmess would do the job, and Leonard Silver, of Arlington, proposed the fun-to-say sniptastrophe.


Eleven centuries ago, Old English had dustsceawung, literally meaning “contemplation of dust” and also tidily expressing the idea that dust used to be other things and that everything will ultimately end up as dust. But that word wafted away long ago and has left nothing in its stead. Lisa Brewster-Cook, of Arlington, who mentioned that she’s now an English teacher at her alma mater of Somerville High School, stepped up to try to replace it.

She wrote, “A historical reference with an -s on the end seems to fit the bill: great chain of beings. If a single word is better, then maybe dashes (‘dusty ashes’), a call back to the whole Ash Wednesday thing of ‘Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.’ True, dashes is already a word. But this could be an alternate meaning.”

Trust an English teacher to appreciate alternate meanings — a gazillion of our words have them. Dust, as a verb, is a good example. It can mean “lightly sprinkle,” as in “snow dusted the hills,” and it can mean “remove dust,” as in “he dusted the bookshelves.” In fact, as those examples show, dust is an auto-antonym, a word with two contradictory meanings — as are bound, cleave, fast, left, and rent, among many others.


But let’s get back to meanings that need someone to put some English on them.

For the Icelandic word gluggaveður, weather that looks delightful when seen through a window but is unpleasant to be in, Stu Cartwright, of Wayland, proposed Mainespring. Said aloud or when exported to distant corners of the English-speaking world, this has obvious shortcomings — but, hey, we’re in New England and the Globe is a written medium, so I’ll take it.

Goya — from Urdu, a moment when a fantasy seems so real that one perceives it as reality and experiences a total suspension of disbelief — is the one word that didn’t elicit any responses that spoke to me. Which I found surprising, because we need a word for this now more than ever, no? If you still have ideas about how we might translate goya, please do send them in.

Re iktsuarpok, a person’s feeling of excited anticipation when they expect someone to arrive, Leonard Silver created a portmanteau of guest and goosebumps, namely, guestbumps; and Stu Cartwright suggested ctrlrefresh. Jeff Kaufman, of Needham, reported that when he was a child, “my dad had a good term for this: He told me not to be so excitipated.”


For the Indonesian jayus, a joke that’s so unfunny and so bumblingly told that it actually makes one laugh, Stu Cartwright proposed dubyaheyhey, which I can tell is meant to elicit at least a chuckle. But I don’t get it. At all. So I’m going to figure dubyaheyhey is itself making a bid to be an Anglophones’ jayus and leave it at that.

On to Tulu’s karelu, meaning the indentation left on the skin by tight clothing such as jeans, socks, or a bra. Jeff Kaufman wrote, in a tone I took to be authoritative, “Indeed, Western medicine does not have a specific term for this type of minor edema or skin impression. Is it a skinpression?”Jack Neiman, of Framingham; Dana Robbins; and Liz Thompson, of Putnam, Conn., offered skindent or skindentation, which are straightforward and clear. And Leonard Silver thought up smushmark, which is cute.

For the Finnish myötähäpeä, the feeling of embarrassment or shame one experiences when seeing someone else do something seriously cringy, Aaron J. Weinert, of Boston, suggested thembarrassment and the apparently irrepressible Stu Cartwright proposed Oscarnight.

The German word Torschlusspanik, which refers to the panicky recognition that one’s opportunities are diminishing as one ages, made Jean Whooley, of Dorchester, think: “At 71, I realize that many former hopes and dreams are part of my anticipast.” Dana Robbins gave me “agiety (sounds like anxiety),” and Mark Zanger, of Jamaica Plain, suggested bucketangst.


As for ubuntu, from a family of southern African languages in which it means something like awareness of our common humanity, I got a few suggested translations. But Jeff Kaufman argued: “There should be no new word for ubuntu. It is too good. In a lesser sense, it is culture, but that omits much of the nuance of the psychology in ubuntu.” On reflection, I agree with Jeff. In the grand melting pot tradition of English, let’s keep on keeping on with ubuntu itself. And I’d like to award bragging rights to ubuntu and to Jeff. Thanks!

Now here’s our new challenge: As I grow older, I notice that people who would have looked elderly to me 20 or 30 years ago (I’m talking gray hair and wrinkles) don’t anymore. They just look normal. Other people of somewhat different ages have told me they’ve noticed the same thing. What could we call this phenomenon of perceiving one’s agemates as ageless? Send your ideas to me by noon on Friday, Jan. 6, at Barbara.Wallraff@globe.com, and kindly include where you live.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer and editor who lives in Cambridge.