I don’t think it’s possible to be a writer – let alone a poet – if you aren’t in love with language. So this is the first of what will be a number of word-based exercises.
Today‘s task is to write a poem that explores a word (or phrase) that exists in another language, but has no English equivalent. Sheenagh Pugh‘s lovely poem “Exact Language” (from Long Haul Travellers; Seren, 2008) and Paul Muldoon’s “Quoof” (from Quoof; Faber, 1983) are perfect examples of this idea. (We’ll deal with etymology, false friends, and definitions, later.)
Maybe you could write about what the existence of the word suggests about the people of that place. (Or the absence of it in English suggests about us.) Or wallow in it – make your poem a simple (?!) vignette that illustrates what the word means, or what it means to you. Or the opposite – a poem about living an existence that doesn’t know it needs that word yet. You get the idea.
Below are selection of possibles, but feel free to find others for yourself.
- élevage (French) originally referred to the making and maturing of wine. Now used to describe the rearing of children.
- gagung (Cantonese): literally ‘bare sticks’ or ‘bare branches’, refers to the hundred million or so ‘surplus’ males in China who are unlikely to ever marry or have families.
- Schlimmbesserung (German): means ‘an intended improvement, that makes things worse.’
- karvat (Hindi): the side of the body on which one rests.
- mokita (Kiriwina, Papua New Guinea): a truth that everyone knows, but no-one wants to talk about openly; something unpleasant or unwelcome that will cause social awkwardness or family embarrassment if discussed.
- karoshi (Japanese): death from overwork.
- curglaff (Scottish dialect): the shock felt when plunging into cold water.