Tongue cramps

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 19, 2018 Published on January 22, 2016

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This is me, Bins, again. “She” is still unable to use her right hand. She calls me “The Left Hand of Darkness” — meaning, she thinks I am having fun at her expense by writing my own things! Not what she tells me! And she is correct! After all, I am not her secretary. But here is something funny: after just one column, I feel I can do this just as well as she can. Maybe I use a few more exclamation marks than her. I cannot help it! I am French. It is part of the hazard of being Me.

So. Today I want to mention a small book she brought into the house. Mind you, it is not a book I would EVER bring into the house. It is called LOST IN TRANSLATION by Ella Frances Sanders. The sub-heading is ‘An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World’. On the cover there is a cartoon-picture of an igloo and a person standing in front of it. In the sky, which is plain white in colour, there are a lot of funny-looking stars even though it is not night. There is also a road sign, with a nonsense-word written on it: IKTSUARPOK.

I do not believe in this book. I think it is crazy. No one can even say such a word, never mind scrape out a meaning from inside it. But she says it is used by the Inuit, who live near the North Pole. “I know the Inuit live near the North Pole,” I say, in a growling voice. She says, “It means ‘the act of repeatedly going outside to keep checking if some (anyone) is coming’.” I say, “Ickti-saurus-pok-pok-pok ...” while tapping my forehead to mean these Inuit are crazy. But I pick up the book anyway to see what other nonsense there is inside it.

“TSUNDOKU,” I say, “is something this book deserves.” It’s Japanese, for leaving books unread, sometimes in a pile. She does it with all her books. “Look up GLASWEIN,” she says, wearing a crooked smile on her face. I find it after flipping through the pages to look because OF COURSE a book like this never has an index. Still. The pictures are funny. Silly. But funny too. The word means literally “blue smile”. That is: a sarcastic or mocking expression. The picture shows many smiling mouths with blue lips.

“Pah. It’s a piece of pure DRACHENFUTTER,” I say. It means a gift one person gives to appease another, like the food you give to a dragon to stop him from burning you up. “Nonsense,” she says. “I looked inside the book already and know what that means — ” Then she stops. “Oh wait! You mean YOU need it as a gift?” I give a cheeky wink. In the book there’s a word meaning a silent acknowledgement between two people who are thinking the same thing: MAMIHLAPINATAPAI. It’s from Yaghan, a language spoken in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. My tongue gets a cramp when I try to say it. It takes me a PISANZAPRA just to try. Go on! Look it up! You will smile.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on January 22, 2016
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