Several years ago I was reading a book (probably a travel book) and the author mentioned the existence of a word or phrase that means the delightful sensation of finding oneself in unfamiliar surroundings, more or less. I can’t remember the language – French? Italian? Portuguese? But I do remember smiling to myself and thinking, well, it wouldn’t be a standard American English expression. Here in the U.S., the word for not knowing where you are is lost – a word which, in broad stereotype, suggests an imminent, frantic deployment of cell phone or GPS or, in days of yore, an argument with the spouse regarding pulling over into the gas station to ask for directions.
In perfume discussions we use the term jolie-laide, a French expression which translates literally, I think, to pretty-ugly. It’s a wonderful term and so useful in discussing those scents which are, well, not conventionally pretty while still being beautiful, or striking. Jolie-laide, to me, is a compliment of the highest sort, although I wonder if that would be true to French speakers. I suppose like so many things, context would be everything. Also, in French, is it only used to refer to the appearance of a person, or can you use it more broadly?
So today’s Random Sunday stems from my language-geekery; I love discussing the nuance in other languages, as some of you already know if you’ve been trapped in one of my email cycles when I jump around like a puppy, all excited and wanting to understand the subtleties or deployment of some interesting word or concept in your language. I invite all of you who speak another language (including Aussie, Kiwi or UK English) to share in comments a word or an expression you know that is useful, enchanting, evocative of your culture, etc., that we don’t have. I bet French and Russian are full of them … heck, every foreign language must have its interesting terms that I wish we’d co-opt into standard English.
So, offer ’em up! What word or phrase have you tried to translate into English to be told, well, there’s really nothing quite like that. Or, you can do the reverse – is there an expression in English that you find baffling, interesting, hilarious, confusing?
Bonus points for anyone who can provide the word or phrase I can’t remember that means the delightful sensation of finding oneself in unfamiliar surroundings (that’s my recollected paraphrase.) I’d love to know what culture finds a need for that.
image: Urbino, Italy, wikimedia commons