Since my partner and I sold our business (many years ago, when we both reached the ripe old age of 50), we’ve traveled much of the world, in part researching the books we’ve written together. So we’ve crossed the Tibetan plateau, traipsed through Spain staying only in ancient monasteries, hiked the icecaps of Greenland, and journeyed by river boat to the upper reaches of the Orinoco.
On most of these trips, I’ve been assigned the role of linguist, my partner, Richard, being an ace map-reader but congenitally incapable of learning a second language. As the linguist, I’ve often discovered there’s a single word or phrase in a foreign tongue that encapsulates the character of an entire culture.
For example, there’s the word nomohoni. You won’t know this word, because it’s used only by the Yanomami, a primitive tribe of Stone-Age Indians who live in the jungles of Venezuela and Brazil. We came across this word when we visited one of their settlements on that riverboat journey to the upper Orinoco. There’s no English equivalent, but roughly translated nomohoni means ‘to employ trickery to set a trap for your enemies so you can safely massacre them.’
That’s a complex concept to incorporate into a single word, and most societies (fortunately) don’t need it. The fact that the Yanomami do tells you a lot about their culture and why they’ve sometimes been called ‘the most violent people on Earth.’
Then there’s the word tingo, which again you won’t know, because it’s found only on Easter Island. There’s no counterpart in English, but broadly the word means ‘to borrow things from a friend’s house, one by one, until there is nothing left worth taking.’ Entire books have been written about Easter Island and the flaw in the islanders’ culture that caused their society to fail; but to my mind, this one word, all by itself, says everything you need to know.
In Europe, the French have an expression, faire le pont, which literally translates as ‘to make the bridge.’ Again, there’s no concise English equivalent, but it means if a national holiday in France falls on a Thursday, then the entire country will ‘make the bridge’ by taking off the Friday too, and so creating a four-day break out of what otherwise would have been a normal weekend. What this tells you about the French, if you didn’t already know it, is that they don’t much like to work.
I’ve tried to think of a word or phrase that captures American culture, but the best I’ve come up with is, we’re number one. It’s prideful and a little aggressive; and it stands in sharp contrast to the phrase the English selected when they were asked to condense their culture into a single phrase. After much debate and discussion, a national-wide survey came up with sorry for the inconvenience, a self-effacing apology that, if nothing else, helps explain why the national pastime in Britain is not cricket or soccer, but queueing (what we call standing in line).
Other suggestions would be welcome, and since I’m American (by choice) and British (by birth), no offense will be taken.