WAAT #06: Words That Carry Entire Histories and Ways of Being Within Them


Our favorite words mean a whole lot more to us beyond their objective dictionary definitions.

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Earlier this week, I asked about favorite words in different languages on Twitter and got some lovely responses. I’ll share a few more briefly, although I could write entire essays about each. For me, they contain entire histories and ways of being within them.

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1) Khamma — This is from Gujarati, the language I grew up with and translate from. It means “bless you” or “be well” or “be free from harm/evil.” It’s still said by women to children especially when they cough or sneeze. In ancient times, it was also used to signify respect. For example, a king (or queen) would be announced as “The King of kings, khamma khamma ji, bestower of plenty . . .” I like it because it reminds me of my mother, who used it often. It’s also such a lovely sentiment, don’t you think?

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2) Scintilla — Meaning spark and from the Latin. It reminds me that everything begins from a tiny spark or particle and the tiniest of traces of a particular quality or feeling is sometimes all it takes to ignite something big. I like it better than ‘atom’ because ‘scintilla’ has a more satisfying texture with its four syllables. And here’s an interesting thing: ‘scintilla’ led to ‘stincilla’, which led to ‘stencil’ and even ‘tinsel’ with the latter two referring to decoration or design with bright colors or patterns. Cool evolution chain there too, right?

3) Vade Mecum — Staying with Latin. Not because I know the language or am particularly drawn to it. Just that I’ve never found an equivalent of this term in any of the other languages I do know. It means “to go with me” and generally refers to a book that’s like a perpetual handbook or guide. For the longest time, from my early teens onward, this was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Years ago, I wrote a bit about that at The Atlantic for a series. Over time, my vade mecum has changed with my circumstances. Now, instead of a book, it’s a word-of-the-year that guides me. I wrote about that in 2020 at The Millions. 2022’s word is “practice.” Do you have a vade mecum of your own?

4) Kaizen — I discovered this Japanese word during my engineering career. It’s a business philosophy about ongoing improvement. But it’s also, as I’ve internalized it over the last couple of decades, a philosophical mindset. It’s about making regular small changes to move toward a larger goal. In the Japanese language, the word is derived from ‘Kai’ meaning ‘change,’ and ‘zen’ meaning ‘good.’ Literally: ‘change for the better’. There’s a lot more to it. Toyota brought it to the business and manufacturing world and many American multinationals created entire business programs, toolkits, and processes following those principles. And I do use some of these ideas for how Desi Books is run.

5) Sohbet — The best for the last. I learned of this when reading about Rumi’s relationship with his spiritual guide, Shams-i-Tabrīzī. ‘Sohbet’ is of Persian origin, though some also trace the etymology back to Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. It means discourse or conversation between a learned, enlightened one (murshid) and the one committed (murid) to such a person. I hesitate to use the words teacher and student because ‘murshid’ and ‘murid’ mean so much more. Just as ‘sohbet’ means than mere dialogue.

Indulge me? In the Sufi tradition, there are three ways of being spiritual, with each being a level higher than the previous: prayer, meditation, and sohbet. As the highest way of spiritual being, sohbet is a mystical practice involving an exchange of knowledge and devotion between the murshid and murid through storytelling traditions. It involves a healing, a cleansing, and a coming together of their minds, hearts, and souls. The murshid cultivates and educates the murid with care and compassion and their deep connection is one of true respect and trust. Through such a practice of sohbet, the murid is able to find a sense of unity with everything. Beautiful, no?

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What are some of your favorite words and why? You can reply to that Twitter thread or just share on your social media feed and tag me.

Closing with some interesting links:

Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.

— Comma Press (UK) is running a virtual translation conference from Feb 22-24 (thanks, Annie)

— The University of Bristol (UK) has a literary translation summer school coming up in July

— The Writing Life podcast has a new episode with Meena Kandasamy and Anam Zafar talking about translation as activism

— Rebecca Hussey wrote at Bookriot about whether a translation can be better than the original book

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. She teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. She lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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