August 8, 2023

Mind the lexical gap!

Written by Ian Winick

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One of the joys of translating from German is coming across a word you’ve never seen before and, on Googling it, realising that no one else in living memory has used it either. And then having to come up with a translation for it.

When reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue recently – yes, it’s been around since 1990 but I’ve been busy – I was reminded that Shakespeare was responsible for introducing many new words into the English language that are still widely used today. These include surprisingly commonplace ones like “bedroom”, “zany”, “fashionable”, “worthless”, “to hurry” “to gossip” and “to undress”. All in all, more than 1,700 words made their first recorded appearance in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Some fell by the wayside, of course, but others clearly met a need and survived. After all, without the adjective “zany”, how would we ever have described Kenny Everett?

I say that I was “reminded” about this phenomenon because I had already read about it many moons ago in a Telegraph article written by Stephen Fry on the publication of Bryson’s book – and which is also reproduced in his Paperweight collection. Here, His Tweediness made the point that, while any idiot can come up with a new word, actually getting other people to accept and use it is a different matter entirely. The writers of The Simpsons managed to embiggen the English language with a perfectly cromulent word or two, but they were very much the exception.

One person who came very close back in the early 1990s was Fry’s friend and comedy partner Hugh Laurie. Whenever he was in the studio recording a piece of dialogue peppered with Ps and Bs, he would invariably ask for a “spoffle” – and it was always perfectly clear from the context (and, one suspects, the onomatopoeic feel of the word) that he meant a pop-shield, i.e. the foam cover put on microphones to stop the explosive consonants from “popping”. It’s hard to say whether the word actually had much currency outside BBC comedy circles at the time, but there is an entry in the Urban Dictionary more than thirty years later attributing this word to Laurie.

We all know that time flies as you get older, but if you really want to feel like you’re hurtling towards the grave at breakneck speed, my advice is to hire a window cleaner to come around every six weeks. Why, you may ask? Because these six weeks will soon begin to feel like two. Our window-washing wunderkind of choice, Jörg, has had such an impact on the perceived passage of time in the Winick household that we now use his name to mean “a period of six weeks”, usually with an air of incredulity: “Has it really been a Jörg since my last blog article?” or “Three weeks for delivery? That’s half a Jörg!”. Expect an entry in the German Urban Dictionary in a Franz or two. (Herr Franz is the bow-tied gentleman who comes around once every five years to ask if we want to buy a fax machine.)

When he was knee-high to a grasshopper, my German stepson unwittingly invented a word that his mother and I still happily use to this day. The word Herrendiener originally meant a living, breathing valet but is now also used to signify a valet stand, a useful device for hanging your clothes on when you go to bed (not unlike what teenagers call a “floor”). Although he was fascinated by this strange motionless contraption, he was never able to get his six-year-old brain around the word Herrendiener, so he decided to call it a Hermadina instead. Which, as all my German friends agree, is a much better word.

I’ve even had a go at inventing the odd word myself. One of these is bonjovial, which I like to think describes the weird state of mind in which, although under normal circumstances you’d sooner shave your nether regions with a broken bottle than put a Bon Jovi record on, you sing along with gusto whenever Living On A Prayer comes on the car radio. I also had high hopes for the expression “to give good Google”, meaning to yield lots of Google hits (e.g. “this turn of phrase seems to be quite common – it gives pretty good Google”). I’ve drip-fed this to the masses via Twitter and am going to give it a while to sink into the collective consciousness and then see if it gives good Google in a year or two. Or, at the very latest, a Franz.

Despite the best efforts of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and the Beastie Boys, there are still important words missing in the language – a phenomenon known as lexical gaps. The expression bon appétit springs to mind; as our European cousins are often bewildered to learn, there simply isn’t a viable equivalent in English. “Enjoy your meal” is fine if you’re a waiter placing a plate in front of a customer at a restaurant but doesn’t work in a private setting. This explains why English speakers occasionally borrow the French bon appétit in English – or, more often than not, talk about the weather. Or, in some cases, come up with an original alternative themselves: for instance, I remember reading about a group of English translators sharing an office who, before tucking into their communal lunch, simply look at each other, smile and say “lexical gap”.

To return to Twitter, the jury is still out on the best word to describe people you interact with on the platform – something more fun and inventive than “Twitter friends”. The word ‘mutual’ gives tolerably good Google but, I’m sure you’ll agree, is soulless, joyless and lifeless to almost LinkedIn-like proportions. ‘Twitterati’ is pleasingly pretentious but only really works in the plural, and ‘tweep’ sounds a little too close to ‘dweeb’ for comfort. My personal favourite is ‘Twit’, with a reassuringly affectionate capital T for those of a sensitive disposition who haven’t blocked me already.

Of course, all of this may be moot if Twitter’s billionaire owner continues to run his new plaything into the ground at the current rate. But thankfully we have plenty of words for him already.

2 comments on “Mind the lexical gap!”

  1. I love caring for our language(s) so much. Du machst das spürbar selbstverständlich, aus der Seele, und das kann einfach nur ein gutes Ergebnis nach
    dem anderen am Wegrand hinterlassen. Die Optik paßt
    sehr schön dazu. Fän :))

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