All of a sudden its autumn. The Sanskrit word कल्प describes time passing on a cosmic scale.Pixabay

It seems like barely a day since I was writing last week’s column about how the world’s languages express beauty. On another scale, the view that starting university last year, or two, or even three years ago, seems like just last week seems to be a popular one among second, third and fourth years these days. The fact that in a couple of months I’ll be halfway through my degree is terrifying – while freshers will be interested, or perhaps depressed, to discover that by the end of this week, they’ll officially be halfway through their first term, and have completed a whole sixth of their first year. Going back even further, I know it definitely doesn’t feel like eight whole years since my first day at school.

There’s a word that describes this strange ability that the world, and time, seem to possess – the Sanskrit word ‘कल्प’ (written as ‘kalpa’ in English). This word describes the idea of time passing on a cosmic scale – and although it tends to refer to larger time scale, like the period of time between the creation of a world, and its recreation in traditional Buddhist ideas, I’m sure a little artistic license can be employed for our purposes.

“If this isn’t a characteristic of the way society and the world work in the most mysterious ways, I honestly don’t know what is”

Another classic scenario which people of all languages and cultures are doubtless familiar with is that described by the word ‘verschlimmbessern’ in German. This verb describes the action of trying to make something better, but ending up making it worse instead. It’s something that we all experience at some point in our lives – whether it’s accidentally making your essay make even less sense in an attempt to edit it, or trying to justify something you said without thinking and ending up making it even worse for yourself. It’s when you dig yourself into a hole, and any attempt to extricate yourself only ends in you digging deeper.

The next situation we’re going to look at is, again, an all-too-familiar one – and comes this time from the Austronesian language of Kilivila, spoken in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. The word ‘mokita’ refers to the truth that we all know, but silently agree not to talk about. It is related to the idea we have in English of the ‘elephant in the room’, though the two concepts are slightly different – the elephant in the room tends to refer more to a problem or risk which is obvious to everyone, but which nobody wants to discuss. ‘Mokita’ (as I understand it) tends to refer instead to a secret or truth that everyone is aware of, and that everyone knows everyone else is aware of, but that it is not necessary to discuss.

Moving on to other social situations that can only be described as convention, we come to Japanese, and its delightful ‘有り難迷惑’, transcribed in English as ‘arigata meiwaku’, which depicts a very specific social situation. It refers to an act that someone does for you that you didn’t want them to have to do and tried to avoid making them do, but they went ahead anyway in their determination to do you favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, but in the end you were forced to express gratitude to them anyway due to social conventions. This situation is definitely one I find myself in a lot, but whether I’m the annoying person who insists on helping out, or the one who gets helped out despite my protests, is unfortunately unclear.


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Lastly, another social convention – or at least, close to one. This word comes from Yagán, one of the indigenous languages of Tierra del Fuego. Yagán is regarded as a language isolate, due to the fact that it doesn’t seem to be related to any other language being spoken today – just like Korean from my first column on specifics. The word ‘mamihlapinatapei’ captures the look that passes between two people who both want something to happen between them that is more than friendship, but are both reluctant to start this. This look is far too familiar – people in movies and real life alike all too often describe knowing that someone likes them from ‘the look in their eyes’ and liking them back, but nothing ever ends up happening due to their reluctance to actually start it. If this isn’t a characteristic of the way society and the world work in the most mysterious ways, I honestly don’t know what is.

So, what has this week’s collection of words from all over the world shown us? That it’s normal for time to pass you by on a cosmic scale – that making things worse while trying to make things better is something that happens to all of us – and that social conventions really do dominate our very existence

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