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In Search of the Perfect Word

August 31, 2013

The rich colours of the English language tapestry are the legacy of Britain’s warring history.  From the 1st to the 4th centuries AD, Britain lived under the iron fist of the Roman Empire.  Early in the 5th century, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, all Germanic-speaking peoples, whose original territories stretched from Holland to the Danish peninsula, swarmed over England, bringing with them the rudiments of the Old English language.  Beginning with the sacking of the abbey on Lindisfarne in 793 AD, and continuing over the next 250 years, the Vikings/Norse, called “Danes” by the Anglo-Saxons, occupied parts of Britain—the eastern half of what would become England, the western coast of future Scotland, the Pembrokeshire region or Wales, and the southeast of Ireland—and put their distinct stamp on the English language.  From the time William the Conqueror led the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066 until Henry IV had Richard II murdered in Pontefract castle in 1400, Anglo-Norman, a northern dialect of Old French, held sway as the language of the ruling class, and would flesh out the Germanic grammatical bones of English. 


The Church, inextricably tied to the monarchy, placed its indelible mark on the language, introducing many Latin words into the lexicon.  Although few new words were coined by those who in the late Middle Ages translated the Bible into English, they catapulted many new words into everyday speech and enlivened the way we turn a phrase. 


English continues to evolve and expand, refining its grammatical conventions and inflating its dictionaries.  During the past 50 years, and average of 8,500 words have made their way into the English language every year.  It has always been exceedingly accommodating of foreign words, borrowing from other tongues as need demands.  Some of these are words quickly conventionalized into common usage, while others patiently wait in the wings, biding their time until their moment to take the stage.



Sometimes I search in vain to find a word that will communicate exactingly a particular thought.  Although English has, arguably, a larger vocabulary than any other language, occasionally I find it offers no word that renders all the shades and texture I wish to evoke.  Indeed no language could hold enough expression to convey the entirety of the human experience.  But sometimes I am able to find a foreign word, often impossible to precisely translate into English, that fits like a glove.  I recently stumbled upon three such words that struck a chord with me, passionately capturing profound feelings I have experienced. 


Dépaysement is a word from the French that is often simply translated as “homesick”, but it encompasses far more meaning than that.  It suggests the unsettled feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country — of being a foreigner, or a stranger to the earth, of being somewhat displaced from your origin.  It expresses the estranging effect of a change of place, senses sharpened by wonder yet tinged with anxiety, the feeling of being out of one’s element, the disorientation of being in unfamiliar surroundings, uprooted, adrift.  It implies home, in its every nuance….so, so far away.  Yet it can also indicate the salutary effects of a change of scenery.


Weltschmerz, inadequately translated “world weariness”, “world pain” or “world grief,” is a loanword from the German language, denoting the sad that can occur when thinking about the evils of the world, and the psychological pain that can flow from it.  It embodies a combination of resignation, apathy, despair and pessimism sometimes experienced when realizing the difference between physical reality and the ideal state, that one’s own weaknesses are rooted in the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and physical and social circumstances.


Torschlusspanik, also from the German, is translated literally as “gate-closing panic.”  Originally it described the feeling experienced by medieval peasants when the castle gates were closing in defence against an upcoming onslaught by enemies.  Its contextual meaning refers to the fear that time Is running out.  It can also bespeak fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.


Certainly these are not words I would incorporate into casual conversations (at least not most), but it gives me a measure of satisfaction to know that there indeed is a word to express these feelings, albeit not in English (at least for now). 


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