One of the great beauties and freedoms of the Internet Age (and there are precious few) is that we are free to publish things and make sweeping assertions without bothering to cite our sources. Our collective knowledge is a hazy sphere, of half-remembered facts and unverifiable data. It is a pleasant and easy land, not of milk and honey, perhaps, but of bits and pieces.

I say all this by way of apology for the unverifiable and frankly indefensible ‘study’ I am about to quote, which has assembled a list of the most ‘untranslatable’ English words. The list runs as follows:

  1. Plenipotentiary †
  2. Gobbledegook †
  3. Serendipity †
  4. Poppycock †
  5. Googly †
  6. Spam †
  7. Whimsy †
  8. Bumf †
  9. Chuffed †
  10. Kitsch †

Sharp linguistic eyes will note a few utterly forgivable errors here. Kitsch, for example, is not an English word. You would assume, therefore, that in some languages, at least, a rough equivalent could be found. Also, plenipotentiary has perfect mirrors in Romance languages (plénipotentiaire, for example, would probably get close to the nub of it in French). Serendipity has been imported into various languages wholesale, and spam is pretty international (unless, of course, you’re translating Monty Python).

All that said, the idea that a language – even that most international of languages, English – has some irreducible cultural core simply not available to the non-native speaker, is an attractive one. Do I teach English, in fact, or international English? International English (aka bad English) is to the English I know what Esperanto is to Latin – washed out, denuded, softened around the edges; good enough for selling a few bolts of cloth in Hong Kong, perhaps, but hardly a polyvalent cultural vessel.

Which probably makes me sound a bit Brexity and little-Englander, what with my Monty Python and my warm beer; but that would be poppycock.

Dancing on the Head of a Pin

I once heard a colleague refer to ‘death by vocabulary’, and she was right.You need to handle vocabulary with care. It is too easy to gloss every interesting word, discuss its various applications and anomalies. Vocabulary is a quagmire which drags you in.

So I should apologise to my student of yesterday for dilating on the (to me) interesting distinction between a pair of compasses and a pair of compasses. Are we talking about a pair of compasses (as we might talk of a pair of dividers), or are we talking about, well, a pair of compasses?

I managed to extricate us both from the impasse, after mulling it for quite some time, by noting that context will usually eliminate any ambiguity, and this is true. Never in the history of all humans has one fatally misunderstood whether another was referencing a pair of compasses or a pair of compasses. It is a false problem.

Philosophers are fond of constructing similar exemplae, in order to demonstrate some point about truth-functions or logical discrimination or whatever it might be, so I suppose they have their place. Language does not have to be sourced from the mostly dreary exchanges of ‘real life’ to be useful or pleasing. Their place is not, however, in the working classroom where time can be wasted on invented minutiae. Perish the thought.

But it is secretly –  and I think I am not alone in this – my favourite bit of teaching. There is nothing I like more than to be presented with a series of imperceptible differences and head-scratching distinctions, whether lexical or grammatical or pragmatical. For the most part, I manage to stop myself running on at impossible length. But just occasionally the need to mull a point in public gets the better of me, and my students get the benefit of my theological reasoning.