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The Meaning of Tingo

This little book, published in the UK last month, has attracted a lot of media attention, with many subscribers forwarding notices to me asking whether I was going to review it. The Independent said it “is destined to be the Eats, Shoots & Leaves of the autumn” and it looks likely to get on the non-fiction best-seller list.

The cover of The Meaning of Tingo

I had the pleasure recently of taking part in a radio recording with its author, Adam Jacot de Boinod, for the BBC World Service language programme, The Word. And we share an editor, since Mr de Boinod is published by Penguin, as is my own book Port Out, Starboard Home. You must decide whether any of this influences my view of the book.

It’s an odd little volume, which brings together hundreds of words from 140 languages, “extraordinary words from around the world”, as the subtitle puts it. These are divided into chapterettes, short sections on a theme. One of these is headed “Atishoo!” and begins by noting that in Japan, one sneeze signifies praise, two sneezes, criticism, and three, disparagement. This review stands at about the two-and-a-quarter-sneeze mark.

He claims to have become entranced by language when he discovered 27 words for moustache in an Albanian dictionary, and another 27 for eyebrows. He has found some gems of over-precise usage in his trawls through dictionaries, such as the Persian nakhur, which means “a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils have been tickled”, or the Indonesian didis, “to search and pick up lice from one’s own hair, usually when in bed at night”, or one that hits home, being a sufferer myself, the Cook Islands Maori word papakata, meaning to have one leg shorter than the other. The Japanese have more than their share of terms in the book, such as the wonderful bakkushan, for a girl who looks as though she might be pretty when seen from behind, but isn’t from the front (though the author doesn’t mention it, this is an excellent example of the Japanese ability to creatively borrow words from other languages, in this case English back plus German schön, beautiful). And the meaning of tingo? It’s from the Pascuense language of Easter Island, meaning “to borrow objects from a friend’s house, one by one, until there’s nothing left”.

It is in etymology where Mr de Boinod’s essentially amateur word-sleuthing trips up. The word snob does not derive from sine nobilitate, but from an old word for a cobbler (perhaps he should have borrowed my book from our mutual editor, since it is explained there). I suspect he doesn’t know the origins of putz, which he glosses as “simpleton”, but which both in Yiddish and in English is a ruder term that can mean the penis. My eyes went round when he says that papa is used for “father” in “seventy per cent of languages across the world”. As there are 6,000+ languages, and he says he has consulted no more than 280 dictionaries, that’s a whopping great generalisation from a tiny statistical sample. He is cautious, however, about the common but false story that there are vast numbers of Inuit words for snow, though he lists a jumbled collection from various Inuit languages. The Inuit calendar words he lists are culturally fascinating, though he has got them a bit mixed up, pushing together words from various languages without identifying which come from which.

What bothers me about this book is that it’s the product of a lot of research slog — think of poring over all those dictionaries in strange languages — but that the result is curiously superficial. Few of the entries have more than a word or two of explanation; the terms, such as those above, for complex and untranslatable ideas have been seized upon by writers but constitute only a part of a work which has too many inconsequentials (do readers really want a list of the ancient Chinese counting words?) And I curse the lack of an index.

I’d class The Meaning of Tingo as one for the Christmas stocking. If you prefer something with more meat in it, you might try C J Moore’s In Other Words, which I was unimpressed with at the time, but which stands up well against this competition.

[Adam Jacot de Boinod, The Meaning of Tingo, published by Penguin Books on 29 Sep 2005; hardback, pp209; ISBN 0140515615; publisher’s price £10.00. Not available in the USA at the time of writing.]

Page created 15 Oct. 2005

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