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A Word a Day keeps the cobwebs away

Did you know that the Oxford Language Dictionaries Online Words of the Day are handpicked by teams of editors who scour the dictionaries looking for a little quirkiness to brighten up your day? Or that you can easily sign up to receive these Words of the Day by email in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese – for free?

To mark the latest update to our online French, German, and Italian bilingual dictionaries at Oxford Language Dictionaries Online on November 29, we’ll take a look at some of the truly weird and wonderful Words of the Day in these languages sent out to our subscribers so far this year.

Who knew?

Some of the words that have arrived in your inbox this year may look or sound familiar but have unexpected meanings. Who could have guessed that one sense of the French word baraque is hefty person, for instance, or that Bach in German actually means brook? And in Italian the word bottega (shop or workshop), so often seen in restaurant titles, has another rather unexpected sense demonstrated in the following phrase: hai la bottega aperta = your flies are undone.

On the same theme, it’s useful to know that if a French man is talking about his tablettes de chocolat (literally chocolate bars) he’s referring to his six-pack, or that another meaning of choucroute (literally sauerkraut) is a beehive hairdo. And London residents may not be surprised to find out that in Italian fumo di Londra (literally London smoke) means dark grey; while an Italian medusa, on the other hand, is actually a jellyfish.

Keep your hair on

It’s interesting to note how many Words of the Day this year relate to les tifs (hair), otherwise known as a tignasse (mop of hair), or capigliatura (head of hair). Maybe your hair is blondasse (dirty blonde), blond vénitien (strawberry blonde, literally Venetian blonde) or even dritti come spaghetti (straight like spaghetti). If you écheveler (ruffle) somebody’s hair or perhaps stroke it contropelo (the wrong way) you are likely to end up tutto spettinato (with your hair all over the place). Worse, if you pass a pettine (comb) through your hair very carefully you may find that you have i pidocchi (nits), in which case the best solution might be to einen alten Zopf abscheiden (to put an end to an antiquated custom or practice, literally to cut off an old pigtail). However perhaps we are attempting to pinailler (split hairs) here and maybe a more appropriate Word of the Day for you might be se dégarnir (to be going bald; dégarnir translates more generally as to empty, in the sense of emptying a fridge or a bank account, a rather poignant image).

I play the paperclip

Some of this year’s Words of the Day seem to mean very different concepts simultaneously. Someone asking where the ospite is in Italian could either be referring to a guest or a small bath towel; while velina can mean anything from tissue paper to a press release to a young female assistant on some entertainment programmes who dances around and looks pretty.

French has trombone meaning both the musical instrument and paperclip; as well as blaireau, which somehow means badger, shaving brush, and prat (or jerk), depending on your frame of mind. And German has Starenkasten which translates as starlings’ nest box and speed camera; and Brille, which somehow manages to mean both spectacles and toilet seat.

Eat, drink, and be – mildly inebriated

Anyone who believes that one of the main virtues of the English language is its succinctness may be surprised at how many concepts we can’t translate neatly into English with a single word. From this year’s Words of the Day alone, the world of French cuisine gives us pimenter (to give a bit of spice to), émincer (to cut something into thin slices), and mie (bread without the crusts). German is well known for its lengthy compound nouns, and we find plenty of examples in the domain of food and drink, with Kaffeefahrt (trip [out] for afternoon coffee), vorglühen (to have a few [drinks] in advance), and Butterbrot (slice of bread and butter). Not surprisingly, the Italians too have some all-encompassing culinary terms: there’s a specific verb – spignattare – which means to be busy cooking, while mescolio means long and continuous stirring. To drink a garganella means to drink without letting one’s lips touch the bottle. When it comes to all things bread-related, fare la zuppetta means to dip biscuits or bread in milk, tea, etc., a tartina is an open-faced sandwich, a crostino is a slice of toast spread with butter and various ingredients and a companatico is simply something to eat with bread.

Staying with the food and drink theme, it’s interesting to note that many German idioms are very similar to their English counterparts but with a slight twist. For example, in German you smear honey on someone’s beard – presumably whether they are male or female – rather than butter them up (jemandem Honig um den Bart schmieren); things sell like bread rolls, rather than hot cakes (weggehen wie warme Semmeln); and you have a dumpling, rather than a lump, in your throat (ihm sitzt ein Kloß im Hals).

Unsurprisingly, many Italian idioms in this year’s Word of the Day list also have a gastronomic theme, such as fare la scarpetta = to clean one’s plate with a piece of bread (with a scarpetta being literally a small shoe); se non è zuppa è pan bagnato = it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other (literally if it’s not soup it’s wet bread); and non si può avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca = you can’t have your cake and eat it (literally you can’t have a full barrel and a drunken wife). And if we stretch the food and drink theme a little further, avaler sa chique means to kick the bucket in French (literally to swallow one’s plug of tobacco) while avaler des couleuvres means to believe anything one is told (literally to swallow grass snakes).

Would you rather be belloccio, négateur or beratungsresistent?

Let’s look further at some of this year’s Words of the Day that are difficult to translate directly into English – take some of the Italian words, for example, which shed some light on that country’s own culture. Many Italians see their defining national characteristic as disinvoltura (ease, jauntiness, self-assurance) and would admire anyone who possessed a certain amount of accortezza (worldly wisdom), although, for an Italian, being merely belloccio (fairly good-looking) is perhaps not such a good thing. In Italian daily life you may orecchiare (have a nodding acquaintance of) certain local characters such as the dirimpettaio (the person/neighbour living opposite), the perpetua (talkative elderly housekeeper), the beninformato (well-informed person), the cruciverbista (person who sets/does crossword puzzles), or the fuoricorso (student who has not completed all the exams within the prescribed period). And you may find some of your neighbours exhibit a certain amount of campanilismo (exaggerated attachment to the customs and traditions of one’s own town).

Many of the French Words of the Day that have no direct equivalent in English are rather hazy concepts to start with, such as micmac (shady goings-on), taquiner (to dabble in), or the wonderfully evocative chassé-croisé (continual coming and going). We probably all know someone who is négateur (given to challenging everything), just as we can probably think of somebody who is what the Germans call beratungsresistent (who will not listen to advice). Given Germany’s economic and political status within Europe, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the German Words of the Day that fall into this category relate to the current financial crisis, such as Stellenabbau (reduction in jobs), Sternmarsch (protest march with marchers converging from various starting points) and Personalkarussell (game of musical chairs, or reallocation of jobs amongst the existing staff).

Sounds good

There are some Words of the Day that cry out to be spoken aloud, such as the French emberlificoter (to entangle), tergiverser (to dither), chouia (smidgen), and dégingandé (lanky). Try saying the aptly-named Italian scioglilingua (tongue-twister) or the lovely liquid lapalissiano (self-evident). There are also some wonderfully onomatopoeic words across all three languages: brinquebaler (to rattle about) and gargouiller (to gurgle) in French; the lip-smacking schmackhaft (tasty) and Remmidemmi (row, racket) in German; and singhiozzo (hiccup) and sguazzare (to splash) in Italian. The latter can also boast the rather visually startling asciugabiancheria (clothes drier), scaricabarile (buck-passing), and schiacciapatate (potato masher), while I challenge anyone to spell precipitevolissimevolmente (headlong) right first time.

It’s no broken leg!

Good news for conversationalists, too: the OLDO dictionaries include thousands of example phrases as well as translations. Thanks to this year’s Word of the Day entries you can pick up some handy short phrases in all three languages, such as the French chiche! (I dare you!), pioche! (take a card!), or rebelote! (here we go again!); the German Pech gehabt! (tough luck!) or prosit Neujahr! (Happy New Year!); or the Italian magari! (if only!), guai a te (you’ll be sorry), or beato tra le donne (literally blessed among women, but said of a man in female company).

Some other phrases which might come in handy are the French ça cafouille (things are in a mess), pour la énième fois (for the umpteenth time), and c’est du bidon (it’s a load of hogwash). Similarly, in German your alternative phrasebook may include Bangemachen gilt nicht (you can’t chicken out now), der Amtsschimmel wiehert (that’s bureaucracy for you), and das ist doch kein Beinbruch! (it’s not the end of the world! or literally it’s no broken leg!) In Italian, meanwhile, the following phrases may come in useful if you make new friends: mi scoccia che… (it peeves me that…), è spaccato suo padre (he’s the spitting image of his father), and la canzone fu per me un tuffo nel passato (the song was a blast from the past for me).