I love the example that he gives in the introduction, which I will reproduce here, and the book appears to be filled with such jewels:“In the 1940s, Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced the theory that language proceeds from and shapes our cultural life in ‘Language, Thought, and Reality.’ Whorf’s research into speech and culture of the Hopi Indians, whose language, like Chinese, has no concept of tenses, started a wave of enquiry into the relationship between language and culture. Academics refer to this area as ‘sociolinguistics.’ What emerges is not only the universal phenomenon that certain languages have “no word for X” – for example the Algonquin people have no single word for ‘time.’ – or that other languages have “very many words for X” – the widely held notion that the Inuit people have hundreds of word for ‘snow’ – but also, conversely, that languages, indeed whole cultures, have words, terms, and ideas that are simply untranslatable.”
Moore continues:It is 1939 and two Finish foot soldiers are pinned down in a battle during the war between Finland and Russia.
“We’re outnumbered,” one soldier says. “They’re must be over forty of them, and only two of us.”
“Dear God, it’ll take us all day to bury them!” exclaims the other>
One of my favorite ‘untranslatable’ Yiddish expressions is – UNGEPOTCHKET/ONEGEPATSHKET. And not being a fluent Yiddish speaker, I am going to employ the aid of Leo Rosten’s ‘Joy of Yiddish’ to nail down some of the facts on the expression rather than just using my impressions (the following is a mixture of my thoughts and his).Finnish people tell this story, along with a variety of others, to illustrate the national characteristic known as SISU. ‘Sisu,’ says Professor Kate Remlinger, linguist at Grand Valley State University [[Allendale, Michigan]], is an untranslatable word, meaning something like a dogged and proud refusal to lie down and be beaten. “The way people talk is a reflection of their worldview, their history, and their upbringing,” she says, observing that the idea of ‘sisu’ is so important to the Finns that, three generations after emigrating [[see posting ‘emigrant / immigrant’ – take heed bobinwales!]] to the United States of America, it continues to infuse local Michigan dialect and culture.
UNGEPOTCHET/ONEGEPATSHKET has two senses. 1) Slapped together or assembled without plan, form, or sense; messed up. <“You call this your math notebook. It’s all ungepotchet.”> 2) Excessively and esthetically decorated; overly ornamented, especially something so ornate as to be in bad taste; baroque. <“She wore her new diamond earrings, a necklace, bracelet, two rings, and a brooch. Oy was she ungepotchet.”>
A connection between the German ‘Patsch,’ a slap, and the Yiddish ‘patsh/potch/patch, also a slap or smack, and ‘ongepatshket’ may be from the fact that overhandling sometimes spoils an article. In cooking, the less it has been handled, the lighter the pastry; hamburgers will be more tender if ‘patshed’ less.
A humorous example using the expression is the following:
_____________________Mr. Fleishman, a new art collector, bought a painting that was much admired by his friends Meyerson, a self-proclaimed expert. The painting was one large square of black, with a dot of white in the center. A year later Mr. Fleishman bought another painting by the same modernist genius: a large square with two white dots. Proudly, Fleishman hung the picture over the fireplace and telephoned his ‘maven’ friend Meyerson to come right over. Meyerson took one look at the picture and wrinkled his nose: “I don’t like it. Too ongepatshket.”
Ken G – March 22, 2005