by Elen GriffithsI am hunting for an impossible word. It is ‘Tantenverführer,’ which literally means ‘aunt-seducer’. I pound through dictionaries, trawl internet translators, then finally check online language forums. I search in vain: it is nowhere to be found.
This is because the word does not exist. In his new book Toujours Tingo, the sequel to The Meaning of Tingo, author Adam Jacot de Boinod has collected bizarre expressions from around the world, which have no equivalent in English. He delights in novel expressions and quirky idioms. Yet some phrases that Boinod cites, such as ‘Maüsemelker,’ ‘Tantenverführer’ and ‘gwarlingo,’ seem either to be invented, or so obscure that native speakers do not recognise them. The book has caused anger among the internet community, as linguists argue online that words have been made up.
To my disappointment I could not find ‘Tantenverführer,’ which de Boinod claims means a suspiciously charming young man. It is not in dictionaries, and German linguists on online ‘Leo’ dictionary forum don’t believe it officially exists. ‘Gwarlingo,’ allegedly meaning ‘the rushing sound a grandfather clock makes before striking the hour,’ is similarly unrecognizable. My Welsh-speaking family have never heard of it; nor have readers of ‘Times Online’. Has Boinod actually found these expressions, or is he inventing them?
These may be obscure or archaic words, which poses the question: how can we determine which words we officially accept as part of language? When an author invents words, as Lewis Carroll invented ‘galumph’ or ‘chortle,’ do they count? What about the archaic word ‘coruscating’ used by Stephen Spender, which I have yet to find anywhere else? If a word is so rare that no native speaker has heard of it, can we really accept it as a word?
This is an issue which de Boinod shies away from, yet it is vital in justifying his choice of obscure examples. Toujours Tingo is an interesting catalogue of idiomatic phrases from different languages, many of which are fascinating, but some of which are inane. De Boinod offers no analysis of his word-lists, other than claiming they will ‘change the way we see the world.’ I was interested to know that ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ translates as ‘il pleut comme une vache qui pisse,’ but this did not fundamentally change my perception of language or the world. Toujours Tingo is bursting with interesting trivia – like the fact that many French idioms contain the number 36 – but little meaning.
De Boinod researched his book by trawling through 130 dictionaries and 140 websites, and it is possible that he found his obscure words, which have caused controversy online, in dictionaries more wide-ranging than the ones I use. Yet there is a fine line between quirky, obscure expressions and disused, unrecognisable ones; in my opinion, Toujours Tingo frequently crosses this line.