Eskimos and Inuit are reputed to have many/seven/50/100 different words for snow. Though it may be a tundric myth. (And anyway, don’t we have snow, blizzard, sleet & slush – OK that’s only four, and I’m not sure about the last two.)
But anywhere with an unusually high number of different words detailing aspects of a phenomenon interests me. It evokes poetic lists. Like these from Belfast poet Michael Longley – The Ice-Cream Man.
Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.
You can listen to poet reciting his own lines here. It’s from his 1991 collection Gorse Fires. I recommend it. (The poem sticks in my mind partly because the killing happened round the corner from where we lived. The IRA shot dead the off-duty RUC man, John Larmour who was minding his brother George’s ice cream shop. It was part of the new modern wave of ice cream shop, with scoops of exotic flavours, notably honeycomb or “honey bear” – a change from the smoother Italian-style from the likes of Fusco’s or Berticelli’s.)
Conversations with friends from various European countries have led me to believe that northern Europe has far more euphemisms for death than warmer places. Or perhaps it’s a Germanic language thing?
Kicked the Bucket. Snuffed it. Gone West (Ireland). Biting at the grass from underneath (German). There are many more, but I’m a bit too much on the run at the moment to give you more. Try here.
I’ve noticed that southern Europeans are less likely to cloak death in euphemisms. They speak more plainly about it. I wonder if you agree?
However, it wasn’t snowfall or intimations of mortality that set my mind on this trail, but farting. Or rather, a letter from Emeritus Professor Raymond Levy to the Guardian newspaper on the subject of breaking wind.
The Malawi ban on farting has attracted great attention in the British press (Editorial, 9 February). One thing that is not clear is which type of farting is forbidden. Until recently, I thought that Arabic was the only language with two words for fart. “Zarta” for the loud one and “fassia” for the silent but deadly type. I am now informed that Turkish slang also has two words: “murad” and “yousef”, respectively. I wonder how widespread this linguistic richness is.
Sure English has other colloquial terms – parping, guffing, botty burps. (If only I had Viz to hand.) But are the Turkish and Arabic languages particularly blessed in having nouns to distinguish between the two main categories of rear raspberries? Or can anyone supply the equivalent distinctions in other languages?
While you’re making your mind up, here’s something that is just wrong, wrong, wrong.