Words to the Rescue
Americans rock slang. I’m too old to use most of it without legit #lookingfoolish but appreciate it from afar. When it comes to popping highly complex thought bubbles, foreign languages excel.
Take these popular foreign words that easily migrated into our lexicon — ennui, French for a very sophisticated type of boredom, and hygge. Although I initially thought it was Scandinavian for “expensive pajamas,” hygge actually means the importance and necessity of coziness and comfort.
I planned to add KonMari to this list, until I discovered the words are not Japanese for “spark joy,” but rather a minimalist lifestyle term trademarked by Marie Kondo, using reversed syllables of her name. Unfortunately for “maximalists” such as myself, everything sparks joy, especially musty old Dr. Suess books, baby teeth and holiday decorations.
I prefer the harsher Swedish term “dostadning,” translated “death cleansing” — keeping only what you believe others will treasure after you die. Boom. There’s your clutter laxative.
I find comfort in such precise nomenclature. Once I learned the Japanese term “kuchisabishii,” meaning “I’m not hungry, but I eat because my mouth feels lonely,” I feel much better about plowing through an entire bag of yogurt-covered pretzels when I sit down to write.
Furthermore, it turns out we’re not hopelessly wretched after all. If we popped champagne when Rudy Giuliani got COVID, we were merely experiencing a common case of “schadenfreude,” the German term for “feeling joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune.” And, it could be argued “verschlimmbessern,” the German term for “making something worse when trying to improve it,” has plagued Gavin Newsom’s governing of late.
Along those same lines, “age-otori,” a Japanese term for “looking worse after a haircut,” is not a lockdown-inspired descriptor, but may quickly become part of our vocabulary if we must continue to self-style from TikTok tutorials. Age-otori is real. Our Cava-poo suffered from it for a solid two weeks after every grooming, longer when I attempted to cut corners and groom him myself.
Restricted pandemic life provides fresh insight into “hiraeth,” the Welsh term describing the longing to return to a place that has been so altered in our memory that it cannot really be said to exist outside of our imaginations. An elevated fondness for mediocrity — think: old flames, Hostess Ding Dongs and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride — I worry hiraeth could also apply to the rigors of pre-pandemic daily life I mistakenly think I miss.
The pandemic definitely amped up our “resfeber,” a common, yet very specific anxiety, even before lockdown. A Swedish term for travel apprehension, resfeber translates “the restless race of a traveler’s heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled,” a source of endless “Dad Memes” about arriving at airports three hours early. Thanks to COVID, now I’m all resfebered just crossing the Bay Bridge.
Then there’s “tartle,” a useful Scottish word describing the act of hesitating while greeting or introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name, acknowledging a common, momentary brain lapse rather than a personal affront. As much as we complain about masks, we tartlers have hidden behind them many a time in the frozen foods aisle.
What about the beautiful Finnish word, “sisu,” meaning extraordinary determination in the face of adversity? Let’s employ this word immediately. Healthcare workers and first responders have continuously demonstrated this Scandinavian concept of “a beautiful inner strength — also a form of courage, especially in situations where success is against the odds.”
I’ll end with a creative challenge: invent a word to encapsulate a familiar pandemic ache, “the longing for the soothing hum of the dishwasher, alone in your house on a Thursday morning.”