I Never Knew There was a Word for it, cover

This fun book is a republication of Adam Jacot de Boinod's three books on unusual words, The Meaning of Tingo, Toujours Tingo and The Wonder of Whiffling.

The first two parts, the Tingo books, are collections of non-English words that encapsulate a particular thought or reflect ideas that are important in culture-specific ways. The books were triggered when the author discovered that the Albanian language has twenty-seven words for eyebrow and a similar number for types of moustache. Clearly facial hair is important in Albanian culture.

The Meaning of Tingo and Toujours Tingo

In these books de Boinod collects vocabulary from hundreds of languages and dialects including colloquial usage. The reader can delight in complete ideas summed up in a word or phrase such as “gemas”, an Indonesian word for “ a feeling of finding something or someone so cute that you want to squeeze or pinch it”. Obviously it is an invaluable phrase.

The Tingo sections provide frequent lists of “False Friends”; foreign words that look like familiar English words but have substantially different, often opposite, meanings. For example in Estonian “sober” means a male friend. A nice and appropriate thought is that “fun” in Nigeria and surrounding region means “to give” – perhaps a message there.

Wonder of Whiffling – Unusual and Delightful English Vocabulary

The Wonder of Whiffling book in I Never Knew There was a Word for it provides a similar approach to the English language. It digs up strange words and phrases from English as it is spoken across the world or has been spoken over time. It provides words that sound odd when encountered out of time or place.

The now ubiquitous Post-it note should perhaps have been called “thumbscall” which in Shropshire in England is a piece of paper or card inserted in a book to mark a page. Many were used in the writing of this review, including one for the thumbscall page itself – without it would have been difficult to find again.

Wegotism is the excessive use of “we” in writing, especially in newspaper editorials. It feels remarkably modern yet it is from 1797. So the invention of such expression is not new and wegotism is a word that could easily make a comeback – the reviewer will aim to make it so.

A Book to Dip Into for Fun and Amusement

These books are organised around short collections on very specific themes. For example in meaning of Tingo section there is half a page covering “Windows of the soul” which is about eyes. Some people may read this book cover to cover but most, one suspects, will have it by their bed or chair and dip into it from time when the fancy takes them.

However whilst I Never Knew There was a Word for it could be an invaluable resource for writers, or perhaps travellers, the lack of both a table of contents and an index makes it difficult to use as a reference. Finding words on specific topics is a case of extensive browsing through 778 pages or relying on serendipity. That is shame as I Never Knew There was a Word for it is a collection of strange, sometimes beautiful and often useful words and phrases that a writer would find invaluable if only she could look them up. Perhaps they could be added in a future edition? This book could have been a quaesitum (1748), but without an index it is not “the answer to a problem”.

That does not detract from the book as light relief or a source of amusement – it will provide hours of fun and conversation topics. De Boinod's love of language, the more esoteric the better, shines through in this. The reader will winnick, snirtle and, quite probably, cachinnate whilst reading I Never Knew There was a Word for it.

As a final note: on Easter Island “tingo” means to borrow things from a friend’s house until there is nothing left.

I Never Knew There was a Word for it (2010, ISBN: 978-0-141-02839-2) by Adam Jacot de Boinod is published in paperback by Penguin at £12.99 (Can$26)



First appeared on Suite101


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