Scanning the world for just the right word


Sometimes a single English word can’t quite capture the essence of a particular moment or feeling -- that je ne sais quois -- but logophile Adam Jacot de Boinod has combed through the dictionaries and dialects of more than 254 languages to find a few foreign words and phrases that work in a pinch when the lingua franca fails.

He showcases his collection of interesting words from around the world in the new book “The Meaning of Tingo” and its companion website (

How do you succinctly describe the puffy face and accompanying bloodshot eyes that come after a crying jag? Well, the Germans call that look verheult. The Polish have a word -- fucha -- that basically summarizes the American phrase “sticking it to the man.”

According to the book, fucha means “to use company time and resources for one’s own purposes.” And the titular tingo is a Pascuense (Easter Island) word that refers to the practice of “[taking] all the objects one desires from the house of a friend, one at a time, by asking to borrow them.”


De Boinod, who worked as a researcher for a BBC quiz show, provides tidbits of cultural context to the entries. He also lists many “false friends” -- a term that linguists use to describe words that may look or sound the same in English, but have very different meanings. For example, in Arabic, “kill” means “good friend,” while “mama” means “father” in Georgia.

Some of the more intriguing terms, however, are unearthed when the book delves into the universal language of love. In Central American Spanish, pulir hebillas literally translates to “polish belt buckles (to dance very closely).” And the Boro people of India have various expressions to convey the complexities of love. Their word onsia is used to describe “loving for the very last time.”

Foreign words such as “aloha” and “gesundheit” have already entered the American English vernacular, so maybe it’s about time to add a few more “tingo-isms” into Webster’s. Since we’re in L.A., our votes go to the Italian slampadato (a person who gets tanned with an infrared lamp). It sounds much more exotic than a “George Hamilton.”

-- Christine N. Ziemba