Andrew Taylor

The Greeks Had a Word for It

“Put a name to something and you have started out on the road to understanding it.”

A book for words that you know exist but no in English. There are many such books in the world these days as there is no shortage of content. I stumbled aross The Greeks Had a Word for It in my local bookshop, and it’s served me well.1

Like dadirri—a word in the Ngangikurungkurr language of Australia that helped shape my understanding of the eternal.2

Dadirri implies a sense of wonder and humility, and [an] almost mystical awareness of one’s individual place in the great mystery of Creation. It focuses attention on both the vastness of the external worlds of time and space, and on the inner thoughts and emotions of the individual as a part of that greater whole.

What about the Swedish word gokotta, which means “an early morning walk.”

The word means literally ‘early-morning cuckoo’, and it strictly refers to such a trip taken specifically on Ascension Day, some six weeks after East.

Traditionally, it’s a time for early-morning picnics in a clearing in the forest, in the hope of hearing the cuckoo, which usually arrives back in Sweden from its winter migration sometime during May.

I think of Thomas A. Clark’s prose/poem on walking, which professes, “Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.” The gokotta featured in Clark’s life. Did he search for a name? Did he find this one?

greeks had a word for it
Komorebi is a Japanese word for the magical atmosphere created by sunlight filtering through the leaves. Whitman wrote “The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

On love, the pages are rich. Like hiraeth, a Welsh word that holds the complexity of love—both its sadness and happiness—in embrace. Or what about saudade, a Portuguese word expressing the feeling of reflecting on a lost love? The English equivalents—mournful, longing, and regret—spin around the feeling but miss its heart.

Deceptively valuable are honne and tatemae, Japanese words that mean “a person’s private and public faces—how we really feel and the mask we show to the world.

Although the practical application of these words concern everyday diplomacy, they nevertheless speak to a concept we all use: a need to withhold our “unacceptable” selves: the sadness, the fear, the suffering.

Stephen Fry, one of my heroes for all he has done to show us mental illness, talks about this mask in his autobiography. Eventually, Fry admits “The mask worn long enough will be the face.”3

Similar is the Thai word krengjai.

Sometimes it’s translated as consideration, but that is a feeble echo of the way the word resonates in Thailand. To a Thai, krengjai is an all-embracing concern to demonstrate awareness of other people’s feelings, to show them politeness and respect, and never to make them lose face. The word literally means ‘respect-heart’, and it involves not just surface courtesy or deference but a deeply felt desire to make people feel comfortable and at ease.

I might not understand what this means to a Thai, but being from the American Midwest, I certainly have a bearing set to “making others feel at ease.”

Of all the cultures, the times, the varying degrees of geographic separateness, there isn’t one word included that I don’t find myself nodding at. Is there any better proof of our connectedness?

American novelist Marilynne Robinson put it simply, with a certain amount of duende:4 “We make language.” We make language. Through it, we remember the past, democratise understanding, and connect to each other.

At the same time, let’s remember language emerges from a distinctive use and need. We will never fully understand what philotimo meant to the Greeks, even if we understand what it means to us—the love of honor.

On that, I’ll leave you with this (is there a word for a parting charge? Benediction but with more urgency?): consider what’s not yet created. What words are sorely needed? What things would you like to express and cannot? A word for the feeling that one is a still point of a turning world. A cat that greets your hand with a purr. Wind through firs. Language is ours and ours entirely.5