I love words.
I really, really love words. Their silent power to evoke reactions – some intellectual, some emotional, some even visceral. I love words – those arbitrary combinations of sounds which are at the core of language, which are so heavy with meaning. The love of words is a truth universal to all the writers I know.
Like most Maltese people, I am lucky enough to call two languages my mother tongues. I was raised speaking both English and Maltese at home and with friends. And while English is the language I think and write in, Maltese is a beautiful, complex language which will always influence my experience of the world. Because that is what words do. I’ve mentioned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here before – briefly, it suggests that language affects the way its speakers organise the world and, if you subscribe to this school of thought, that means that the more languages you are exposed to, the more rounded your world-view. My fascination with words has led me to learn three further languages to varying degrees of proficiency, and it always interests me to learn new idioms of the language because they give away so much about the history of that language and the mindset of the people who speak it.
My favourite thing of all, however, perhaps even more than the compulsion to trace the etymology of words back to their roots, is to come across words in other languages which are virtually untranslatable into English. Yes, you can paraphrase them to roughly explain them, but these do in one word what it would otherwise take you a whole sentence to achieve.
Here is a list of my favourite untranslatable words.
1. L’esprit de l’escalier (French). Literally ‘the spirit of the staircase’. This refers to the predicament of coming up with the perfect retort when the argument is over and it is too late to use it.
2. Ta’aburnee (Arabic). Literally ‘you bury me’. This is one which, like most things uttered at the height of romance, is both dramatic and slightly morbid. It means that you hope to die before this person does so you may never have to suffer his or her loss.
3. Toska (Russian). Vladimir Nabokov describes this word most poignantly as: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
4. Wabi-sabi (Japanese). This lovely word refers to the act of finding beauty in life’s flaws and imperfections, and accepting them as they are.
5. Torschlusspanik (German). Literally ‘the panic of a gate closing’. This refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities which increases as one ages.
6. Saudade (Portuguese). Refers to the intense longing for a person or place you loved, which which or whom is now lost forever.
7. Hiraeth (Welsh). Similar to ‘saudade’, this word refers to homesickness tinged with grief for a place you can never return to.
8. Komoreb (Japanese). A word used to refer to the sunlight which filters through the leaves of trees.
9. Retrouvailles (French). The happiness of being reunited with a loved one whom you haven’t seen for a long time.
10. Pena Ajena (Spanish). That cringeworthy shame you experience on somebody else’s behalf when they are behaving in an embarrassing way.
11. Schadenfreude (German). This one is a familiar word as it has been adopted into the English vernacular. It refers, of course, to the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.
12. L’appel du vide (French). Literally, ‘the call of the void’. This refers to that impulse some of us get to jump when we are standing on a high ledge.
13. Pochemuchka (Russian). A wonderful word which refers to a person who asks far too many questions.
14. Backpfeifengesicht (German). An equally wonderful word which means, literally, a face badly in need of getting punched.
15. Beżżul (Maltese). Somebody who is cursed with unrelentless bad luck. This is similar to the Yiddish words ‘Schlimazl’ and ‘Schlemiel’.
16. Ilunga (Tshiluba – spoken in Southwest Congo). This marvellously specific word refers to the stature of a person “who is ready to forgive any first abuse tolerate it a second time, but absolutely never forgive or tolerate any third offence”.
17. Flâner (French). This is the art of leisurely and aimlessly strolling around the streets [of Paris] without any particular destination in mind, and done simply to bask in the beauty of the city.
18. Ayurnamat (Inuit). The philosophy that there is no need or reason to worry about that which you cannot change. Basically, Hakuna Matata.
19. Desvelado (Spanish). The tiredness that comes specifically from having been kept awake all night – by inconsiderate neighbours, for example.
20. Donaldkacsázás (Hungarian). Quite literally, ‘Donald Ducking’ – i.e. Wearing a shirt but no trousers or underpants inside your house.
21. Atolondrar (Spanish). To be so overwhelmed by something that it causes you to become scatter-brained and careless. For example, if you were multi-tasking so heavily at work that you forgot to send an important e-mail.
22. Żanżan (Maltese). To wear or use something new for the first time. Similar to the Spanish ‘Estrenar’.
23. Fingerspitzengefühl (German). Literally, ‘fingertips feeling’; used to refer to situational awareness, and the ability to react appropriately to a given situation.
24. Tan-te (Mandarin). A sense of uneasiness and worry – as if you were hyper-aware of your own heart beating.
25. Tocayo (Spanish). Somebody who shares your first name is your ‘tocayo’.
26. Gigil (Tagalog). That near-aggressive feeling you get when faced with something excruciatingly cute. Like you want to squeeze it until it pops. Basically, “It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die.”
27. Duende (Spanish). Literally translates as ‘goblin’, but actually refers to the heightened stage of emotion and passion connected with performance, most commonly with Flamenco, but applicable to other art forms.
28. Gezellig (Dutch). This word encompasses a number of meanings which refer to something the Dutch hold close to their heart. It is used to mean a sense of cosiness, friendliness, and comfort. Like sitting in your living room with good friends, sipping tasty wine and having fun together – that’s ‘gezellig’.
29. Forelsket (Norwegian). The euphoria that accompanies the early stages of falling in love.
30. Iktsuarpok (Inuit). The feeling of anxious anticipation that leads you to keep looking outside to see if anyone has arrived.
31. Sobremesa (Spanish). That period of time after you’ve finished lunch or dinner, where you just sit and talk with the people you’ve just shared your meal with.
32. Dépaysement (French). The feeling of displacement that comes with not being in one’s home country.
33. Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese). The act of running ones fingers tenderly though somebody’s hair.
34. Kummerspeck (German). Literally, ‘sorrow/grief bacon’, it refers to the weight you might gain from comfort-eating when you are feeling sad.
35. La douleur exquise (French). Literally ‘the exquisite agony’, this is used to refer to the pain of unrequited love.
36. Empalagarse (Spanish). Being overcome by sweetness to the point of nausea – so much that you find yourself needing to drink water or eat something salty to take away the sweetness.
37. Oodal (Tamil). That exaggerated, melodramatic anger that follows lovers’ spats; sulking and throwing a strop in an attempt to get them to apologise.
38. Jayus (Indonesian). A joke so badly told and so unfunny, that you can’t help but laugh at it.
39. Naz (Urdu). The pride or confidence derived from knowing that somebody holds you as the object of their affection and desire.
40. Prozvonit (Czech). The act of calling a mobile phone and only letting it ring once so the other person will call you back, thus saving you money.
I was delighted when a friend of mine contacted me out of the blue to say she had a spare ticket to Coriolanus at the Donmar – a show I had been vainly trying to get into for weeks on end. Critics have mostly been raving about this production of one of Shakespeare’s goriest tragedies: the story of a man whose courage in the face of his enemies has him revered by his people… until his unwavering pride rears its blood-soaked head.
Though the decision to stage the show at the Donmar was a controversial one, my feelings are generally positive: the Donmar is a small space, stripped bare of gaudiness and grandeur, allowing instead Shakespeare’s exquisite words – and our (anti)hero’s larger-than-life personality – to do most of the work.
Director Jamie Rourke made the brave and successful decision to stick to the Donmar’s usual style of minimalist sets, pounding, palate-cleansing techno music between scenes, and what are mostly contemporary, non-distracting costumes consisting of dark jeans, Doc Martens, and a hint of armour. At the back of the stage, a black brick wall is graffiti’d with the protest cries of the Roman plebeians, then scrubbed clean during the action and used as a backdrop for clever projections. In the middle of the stage, inside a red square painted onto the boards at the start of the show, stands a ladder – a versatile prop which is also easy to ignore when it is not needed.
There is almost no use of backstage in this production: all the characters are mostly omnipresent, in a “switched off” state when they are not in scene, sitting neutrally on chairs lined up by the wall. These chairs are also moved around in choreographed steps implying scene changes.
The decision to cast geeky heartthrob Tom Hiddleston and ‘Sherlock’ writer and star Mark Gatiss has certainly helped put bums on seats – each night the theatre is packed wall to wall by predominantly female audience members who have come from far and wide to watch their favourite stars at work – three of the girls I went with had travelled from the US. And this seems to be a trend this season, with the dishy Jude Law playing Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre, and dreamy 10th Doctor David Tennant in an RSC production of Richard II starting this month.
These are intelligent casting choices, but also admirable ones, bringing Shakespeare to some people who may otherwise not have been tempted to give the Bard a try.
But this is also a suitable casting choice. Hiddleston had a career on stage long before Hollywood came knocking. A member of the current flock of public-schoolboy actors, Hiddleston is also an exceptionally talented, RADA-trained actor whose experience includes parts in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Othello, as well as Chekhov’s Ivanov, and a 2011 film production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea’ alongside Rachel Weisz.
Said to have been penned between 1605 and 1608, Coriolanus is based on the legendary Roman general Caius Martius. The play was famously proclaimed superior to Hamlet by modernist poet and critic T.S. Eliot, who called it the Bard’s greatest tragic achievement, and even included the character in his own magnum opus, The Waste Land.
As the proud protagonist, Hiddleston is a perfect mixture of haughty, entitled brat, and conflicted man whose stubbornness is ultimately his downfall – a politician who refuses to compromise on his views to pander to his public. His is a powerhouse performance, with each consonant hit like a drum, every emotion played convincingly, and with enough cheek and action to keep everybody interested – even those not too fond of pentameter.
Coriolanus is a victim of his society and of his own mother, Volumnia, played deliciously by Deborah Findlay. She is pushy, idolising her son as a war-god and raising him to glory… then tearfully wondering why he ultimately ends up seemingly devoid of emotion and devoted to war.
Borgen’s Brigitte Hjort Sorensen plays Coriolanus’s wife – a conspicuously silent role in an otherwise verbose menagerie of characters. But, stuck between two as headstrong as Coriolanus and Volumnia, who could possibly dare to speak?
Mark Gatiss provides excellent comic relief as Menenius, a humorous patrician, whose humour is doubly tragic when he is turned away by his beloved hero after a heart-felt appeal. He is also the one tasked with delivering the famous ‘Fable of the Belly’, which Shakespeare plucks from Aesop’s tales – one of the first examples of the ‘body politic’ metaphor.
Most poignant in the end is the slightly overdone homoerotic relationship of ‘togetherness or nothing at all’ between Coriolanus and his nemesis Anfidius, played by Hadley Fraser, which culminates in a gory climax which, while bursting with shock value, is a moment of beautifully striking imagery as the men’s journey mirrors itself: while the end of the first act is marked by Coriolanus washing himself of Anfidius’s blood, the end of the show sees Anfidius washing himself in Coriolanus’s blood.
This is by no means a subtle production – it is gritty and visceral from start to finish, but it is also a pertinent comment on the inner workings of the elite, and the psychology of politics.
[Ta' Xbiex, Malta; August 2013]
Dear 2013: You were quite rubbish and I’ll be really happy to bid you farewell tonight. From frustrated unemployment to medical emergencies, you really hammered in those nails nice and hard. You’ve brought sadness, death, misplacement and a whole bunch of wtf. But sitting around wallowing in emotional debris has never helped anyone, so I’m choosing to honour the positive things I’ve taken from the year that needs to sod off now.
Typical of me to start with this, but I read lots of books this year. Lots of them. Still a little short of my 52-book-a-year goal, but lots nonetheless. 2013 was the year I really rekindled my little bookworm brain and started reading regularly again for the first time since I graduated from university five years ago: as much as I loved doing my English degree, reading/memorising/critiquing that many books and poems in such a short span of time kind of takes it out of you. I’m glad to finally be back on track.
My BFF with the awesome hair, Hannah, went travelling at the end of last year for six months. Selfishly, I was overjoyed when she came back. She flew to see me in London before she went home and then, when I had to go back to Malta over the summer, I was once again (selfishly) happy that she was there to keep me afloat. I had been dreading the move, but it turned out not to be too bad (mainly because we spent most of it scoffing ice cream, ranting about things like a couple of teenagers, swimming, and sprawled out under the air conditioning in my room watching TV shows and films).
It was a good year for entertainment. First, I pretty much camped out on the set of Sherlock back in March when Season 3 Episode 1 (‘The Empty Hearse’, which airs tomorrow evening on BBC One!) was being filmed in front of Barts Hospital. That was weird and wonderful and I won’t give anything away because I’m not an awful person. This year, we also had a fantastic third season of Game of Thrones, a hilarious second season of Girls, and a brilliant final season of Breaking Bad, along with terrifying offerings from The Walking Dead and the conclusion of How I Met Your Mother. Not to mention Broadchurch, the last season of the (sadly cancelled) Whitechapel, the excellent Ripper Street, and shows I’ve yet to sink my teeth into, including Orange is the New Black, Homeland, and House of Cards.
On the theme of entertainment, 2013 was a great year for cinema, with a really good mix of indie movies and blockbusters, like Star Trek: Into Darkness, Mud, Pacific Rim, Frances Ha, Blue Jasmine, Despicable Me 2, The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug, Nebraska, Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Kill Your Darlings, Gravity, Les Mis, About Time, and Philomena, Silver Linings Playbook, Filth, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Cloud Atlas… as well as some staggering disappointments. *Side-eyes at Luhrmann’s Gatsby*
I’m thankful for the few months I got to work in journalism again, and feel blessed to be able to meet so many interesting people and hear their stories through my work. It is always incredible when somebody trusts you to do justice to a chapter of their life. I am also content with the new skills I have learnt this year through courses and internships, and for the greatest perk of my current job: restaurant reviewing, which strikes envy in many.
This year, I took a course in screen acting and I filmed my showreel (at the world-famous Pinewood Studios, no less) and have been to see a number of fantastic plays, musicals & ballet on London stages, including Coriolanus, One Man Two Guv’nors, The Mousetrap, The Rite of Spring, From Here to Eternity, and – of course – my favourite, The Drowned Man (five times).
I didn’t get to do lots of travelling this year, mainly because most of my flight money was spent on tickets to/from Malta and on a short holiday to catch up with old friends in Dublin. I did, however, get to see a new city – Berlin. Brief as it was, we had a really good time there, partying in derelict buildings with locals, seeing the sights, and getting lost on trains. I hope to be able to do lots more travelling in 2014 (Argentina! Morocco!)
2013 taught me to enjoy small pleasures, to make the most of them even when the walls are crumbling. Family, friends, passions – those are the foundations, and if they’re intact then you can just about cling on, even though life’s taken the shape of a huge-ass wrecking ball, complete with a twerking Miley Cyrus astride it.
Ugh. Twerking. Can we forget about that nightmare and banish it to the depths of obscure history? Thanks.
Happy New Year, everyone. Hope 2014 is way, way better for all of us.
Eight days to go till Season 3 and there is a new Sherlock mini episode which is basically 7 whole minutes of feels and this smug smile and wink right here.
Christmas has come early. Also featuring: Anderson’s beard.