I have just had the privilege of being made aware of the existence of a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego which is listed in the Guinness book of records as the ‘most succint word’ (in the world I take it – how on earth do they determine that though? But let’s give it to them), and its also considered the hardest word to translate.

This was brought to my attention through a facebook friend who shared it via her status – what would one do without facebook friends, I know. That word is Mamihlapinatapai and amongst a few definitions found I’ll go with the wikipedia one, the one shared on facebook also: “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.”

So, the obvious thing which springs to mind for many is the age old predicament (or is it becoming more and more of a predicament as the centuries roll by?) of two souls fancying one another while both find themselves unable to make a pass at the other.

When I first read it I thought of this practical situation as being a mamihlapinatapai moment:

two people are in bed (the same bed or different beds) and a window is open letting in an uncomfortably cool breeze or a door is screeching and kind of disturbing their efforts to enter proper sleep… and they then look at one another.

M.H. Forsyth, who alternatively defined the term in his blog as ‘ending up mutually at a loss as to what to do about each other’, provided us with another such situation, closer to home for many of us:

One gets a fair amount of mamihlapinatapai on British public transport. When a tube train has been stopped in a tunnel for more than ten minutes the imprisoned passengers are suddenly seized with a desire to talk to each other in order to complain. But nobody ever does because nobody talks on British public transport except for drunks and foreigners.

Well, how random was that? But how much richer one is after reading that, and one website even described it as ‘the word one has to know’ – so there you have it.

Feel free to share your own definition, interpretation or practical situation on it below. Be creative, keep it clean.



About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
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