Say It Succinctly

By Philologos

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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Forward reader Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe writes to ask: “In German, Torschlusspanik means a fear of diminishing opportunities. As one gets older, for example, women worry about having passed the age for having children. Middle-aged people worry about losing their jobs and having difficulty finding new ones. Is there a Yiddish word for ‘a fear of diminishing opportunities’?”

I’m afraid there isn’t. One could, of course, copy Torschlusspanik, which means, literally, “a door-shutting panic,” and say a tirshlisung behole, but that wouldn’t mean much to the Yiddish speaker who wasn’t already familiar with the German word.

Indeed, there may be no other language on earth that has a single word for “a fear of diminishing opportunities.” This is the claim of author Howard Rheingold, who, in his 1988 book “They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases,” includes Torschlusspanik in his list of words with exotic meanings that can be found in one language alone. Although Torschlusspanik, Rheingold writes, is most widely used in German in relation to female sexual anxiety, “[its] metaphor is widely applicable. The way publishers all seem to produce their own version of a fad book as soon as one of that category is successful, the frenetic search for an affordable home when mortgage interest rates drop below a certain level, even the arms race — all are varieties of Torschlusspanik.”

Rheingold comes up with some truly wonderful words. There’s biga peula, for example, from the Kiriwina language of New Guinea, which means “potentially disruptive, unredeemable true statements” — that is, things blurted out that you afterward regret forever, not because you didn’t mean them, but because you did. And there’s Russian razbliuto, “the feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but now does not.” Like biga peula, razbliuto is something that practically every one of us has experienced, which makes it seem strange that only Russians have a succinct way of saying it.

Or how about mamihlapinatapei, which refers, in the native language of Tierra del Fuego, to “a meaningful look, shared by two people, expressing mutual unstated feelings”? Why don’t we have a word for mamihlapinatapei in English?

To get back to Yiddish, however, I must say that, here, Rheingold’s choices are rather disappointing. For instance, the first of the several Yiddish terms that he includes in his book is aroysgevorfeneh gelt — literally, “thrown-away money” — defined as “a bad, irretrievable investment.” There’s nothing wrong with this definition, but what language in the world doesn’t have a similar expression? And to find a more colorful one you would have to go no further than Hebrew, in which to make such an investment is to put your money al keren ha-tsvi, “on the horn of a deer” — from which, as can easily be imagined, the chances of getting it back again are not great.

Rheingold could have done better in Yiddish with the word gelt. He might, for example, have chosen the expression rebe gelt, literally, “rabbi’s money,” definable as “a costly or painful experience that is worth having gone through because the lesson learned from it will prevent even more costly or painful experiences in the future.” If there’s another language besides Yiddish that can say all this in two words, I don’t know of it. In Eastern Europe, rebe gelt was, when not used metaphorically, the tuition paid to heder teachers, who had a reputation for being a harsh and wrathful class of people. Or take Rheingold’s choice of kale, “bride” (spelled by him as “kolleh”), which he speaks of as “an appropriate word to use when you want to show someone how to recognize that certain circumstances grant a kind of beauty to a person that transcends conventional aesthetic notions. It doesn’t have to be limited to brides.”

This seems to be suggesting that when you call a bride a kale in Yiddish, you are saying that, whether she is good-looking or not, she has been made beautiful by the occasion. But kale, in fact, means no such thing. It is a perfectly neutral word, just like “bride” is in English, and although one does have the expression sheyn vi a kale, “beautiful as a bride,” there is nothing inherently contradictory in Yiddish about speaking of a homely or plain-looking kale, as well. If Rheingold was looking for a unique Yiddish expression with kale in it, he should have picked khosnkaleshaft — literally “groombridehood” — which could be defined as “the state of being, or of having to adjust to being, a young married couple or a young couple planning to get married.” That would be more like mamihlapinitapei.

Of course, if Rheingold could make such a mistake in Yiddish, he might well have erred in other languages, too. How do we really know that mamihlapinitapei means what he says it does? And indeed, we don’t. Yet the overall point remains valid: Some languages can say in a few syllables what most other languages may need a long sentence to express. Perhaps it is true, as Walter Benjamin once wrote, that every language is only a fragment of the complete language of mankind, which consists of all the world’s languages combined.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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