I love English, don’t you? Apart from being so gorgeously malleable, it also claims the richest vocabulary of all the world’s languages. However, there are a few tiny but rather painful gaps in the English language, which – in our humbly multilingual household – my husband and I choose to plaster up with a few borrowed words.
dimmi –Italian for, literally, “tell me”, but used more broadly to mean something like “I’m listening”, “I’m all ears” or “You have my attention, my dear, reveal to me your heart’s innermost desires.” After your daughter bowls into your study calling out, “Mom! Guess what?” you swivel away from the computer, look her lovingly in the eye and say, “Dimmi.” I’ve never found anything that even remotely resembles this delicate expression of love and attentiveness. Somehow “What?” doesn’t quite measure up.
fussel – German for an indeterminate bit of fluff hanging on one’s person (one’s clothes, hair or navel) and requiring immediately removal. A more comprehensive term than “fluff” itself, fussel can be, for example, a loose thread, a cat hair or even something organic like a burr. (And unlike fluff, fussel ceases to be such the very moment it is identified for what it really is.) The expression also differs from the Yiddish “schmutz” in that fussel is not inherently dirty; however, like with an unsightly schmutz, there is no peace for anyone in the room until it is safely removed and disposed of. Anthropologists speculate that fussel may have a significant social impact on human cultures: pointing out a person’s unnoticed fussel (“Ma’am, there’s a little something on your sleeve there…”) reinforces our sense of community and shared values.
mollica – Italian for the inner part of the bread. Italian tables become littered with cotton-wool-like mollica as the preferred hard crusts get consumed throughout the meal. Sometimes during the conversation, these gummy wads will end up rolled and moulded into little magic wands or perfect miniature globes. Needless to say, afterwards these off-white works of art are only good for feeding to the pigeons or soaking up the excess olive oil from your lips with a ladylike pat (works better than extra-absorbent paper towels). However, I can see why the word mollica may be a superfluous term for those of us who live in the Crustless Commonwealth of White Wonderbread, where bread is mollica.
scarpetta – Italian for the bread you use to clean your plate of its remaining sauce or juices. (Needless to say, the only part of the bread used for the scarpetta is the crust: eating the mollica as well would be far too fattening.) Performing the scarpetta is a compliment to Zia Mena that you loved her bolognese sauce too much to let a single drop go to waste. Not doing so is either a chilly insult or a clear sign that you are suffering from anorexia and will therefore need a double serving of sausages for your secondo.
whanau – Maori for extended family (note: the ‘wh’ is pronounced like an ‘f’). Don’t you feel that there’s something profoundly inadequate about starting a group email with “Dear family and friends”? Putting “family” first demeans some of our deepest and most fulfilling friendships. Furthermore, the word “friend” itself is used far too loosely these days, so that even the mechanic who cuts you a good deal on tires is “a friend of mine”. Whanau puts the dignity back in friendship by not distinguishing between family and close friends at all. In conversation with non-New Zealanders, however, I avoid using the term whanau for fear of being misunderstood. (“I thought you guys were best friends. What do you mean she’s your friend for now?”) Instead I revert to my pre-NZ term “my people”, despite the risk of being mistaken for a homeless Kurd.
earworm – the literal English translation of the German Ohrwurm, a piece of a song that gets stuck in your head and tortuously replays itself like a broken record. Studies have shown that people who suffer most from earworms are those prone to nervous tics and obsessive thoughts. Hence, earworms are so very very rare for me. If at the moment I’m singing the Oompa-Loompa song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it’s only because I really really like it. Oompa, Loompa, doom-pa-dee-da / If you’re not greedy, you will go far / You will live in happiness too / Like the Oompa Loompa doom-pa-dee do.
scugnizzo – Neapolitan for dirty, smart street kid, Napoli-style. This term may be used affectionately to describe your own kid on the days when he makes a getaway from you on your local beach only to strut back towards you a panicked minute later, prancing butt naked down a sidewalk lined with picnicking families, sporting a pigeon feather in his hair and a brushstroke of chocolate ice cream across his cheek. On closer inspection, you can see he has black (dog?) fur in one fist and a beer bottle cap in the other; his belly has three new mosquito bites and both knees are freshly grated. You look down at his blackened feet and scold him with relief, “You scugnizzo you!” Then, with a beguiling smile, he proceeds to pee on your foot. I assure you this has never happened to me.