by The Telegraph, May 14, 2018
A trip to Costa Rica is sure to introduce you to “pura vida”. The literal translation of the phrase is “pure life”, but it has become the country's unofficial motto, as well as its tourist board marketing slogan. Pura vida is all about keeping calm - “tranquillo” - enjoying the simple things in life and being satisfied with what you have.
The phrase is uttered at any convenient opportunity as a greeting or to signal gratitude. I even heard it used with a devilish grin to sarcastically describe a grumpy tourist. And it is much more than a gimmick. Costa Ricans really are the most relaxed and affable folk you are likely to meet - no wonder the country has been named the happiest on Earth for several consecutive years. Thanks to pura vida (and, of course, the beautiful rainforest, sandy beaches - and sloths) a trip to this Central American gem really will improve your mood.
Which curious phrases best sum of the national philosophy of other nations? We asked our experts around the world to offer their suggestions.
Japan excels not only at sushi and minimal design – it is also home to countless unusual words that defy succinct translation, both linguistically and conceptually (a personal favourite? “tsundoku”, a word likely to make Marie Kondo’s head spin, which refers to someone – such as myself - who has a permanent pile of unread books lying by their bed).
But perhaps one phrase that best sums up the Japanese spirit is “ganbatte!” (with obligatory exclamation mark). Loosely translated as anything from “do your best!” and “stick with it!” to “be strong!” and “hang in there!”, it is something of a national mantra. It reflects the utmost importance Japan places on doing your absolute best – not for your egotistical self, but for the wider good of the collective community - be it in the context of the aftermath of a devastating tsunami and earthquake (it was heard and seen everywhere after the 2011 disaster), before an important exam or interview – or simply when carrying heavy supermarket shopping bags home (my kids frequently shout it at me when I’m cycling them up a steep hill on our way home on the electric mama chari bicycle).
In terms of other apt phrases, I think it’s a close call between “shinrin yoku” – which means forest bathing and sums up Japan’s deep-rooted spiritual and cultural respect for all things nature-related – and “karoshi”, a word meaning “death from overwork” which the government was forced to invent to describe the growing number of fatalities due to insanely long work hours. The key to Japan’s psyche can probably be found hovering somewhere between these two extremes.
Gezelligheid – the state of being gezellig – is a cornerstone of the Dutch way of life. The usual translation of gezellig is ‘cosy’, but that doesn’t get a finger on all the subtleties of the concept. ‘Convivial’, perhaps, comes closer. At one end of the spectrum, gezellig is a candle-lit interior, log fire crackling as rain spatters the window panes, but the word carries a deeper meaning: of getting-along-with, of not disrupting others by your behaviour. A welcoming atmosphere in a small café is gezellig; hordes of stoned Brits on a stag party are not. Dutch mothers may urge rowdy children to ‘Keep it gezellig’. You might say that gezelligheid is at the core of Dutch tolerance, which is a way of keeping life ‘cosy’ in a crowded country.
Argentines are creative linguists, making daily use of “lunfardo”, a century-old prison slang. Syllables are routinely inverted. Thus, “café” becomes “feca” and “tango” becomes “gotan”. Sometimes meanings are inverted: “bárbaro”, or “barbarian”, is used to mean “wonderful” or “brilliant”.
They’re most inventive when being rude. The unprintable expressions overheard at football matches tend to feature “sisters”, “grandmas” and genitalia – and often “parakeets”, for some reason. A gentler, ubiquitous deprecation is “boludo”, which can signify “fool” or, to a friend, “mate”. Literally, it means “big balls”, which, in macho South America, is always a term of endearment.
Argentines pepper their chatter with psychoanalytical jargon. Very common, and telling, is “histérico”. Someone is “histérico” or “histérica” when they’re desperate for attention, friends or flirtation. Viewed as arrogant by their neighbours, Argentines in fact harbour a deep inferiority complex.
“Ingleses” are known, after Francis Drake, as “Piratas” – with a kind of grudging respect.
Sik jaw fan may ah?
Shortly after I arrived in Hong Kong and was still grappling with the variant Cantonese tones of hello (lei ho? or nei ho?) and the two ways of saying thank you, I heard the territory’s quintessential query: Sik jaw fan may ah? Literally, “have you eaten rice yet”? That tells you everything you need to know about what matters most here, as it has throughout Chinese history. It’s one of those social questions that doesn’t require a detailed answer: you either have or you haven’t (yet). Apparently, the Mandarin equivalent is falling out of favour with Beijing youth but what do those Northern noodle-eaters know about the true importance of rice?
We Singaporeans are born into the “kiasu” culture, which is best described as an anxious desire not to miss an oportunity or be left behind. From about age seven or eight, everyone in class had a placement or ranking based on our academic achievements, and of course no one wants to be last in class. This obsession about not losing has spawned a ballooning tuition industry that, in 2016, was worth S$1 billion and it’s not showing any signs of waning. Having said that, schools no longer rank students based on academic achievements. But it will take time for the “kiasu” culture to go away. It is perhaps this fear of losing that makes Singaporeans a driven society. But don’t discount us just yet for being kiasu, Singaporeans can be gracious when the situation calls for it.
A country of colonists and conquests, Chile uses pidgin English, “Cachai?” (as in “Catch it?”) for “Did you understand?” To order “cake”, they say “queque” – as in “cakey” – or, in the German-influenced lake region, “kuchen”. When it comes to important matters, such as girlfriends, they prefer the native Mapudungun word “pololo”, meaning “fly”. Boys, it is implied, buzz around girls like flies around a ripe fruit.
Chileans use “huevón” to describe a person who is familiar to them, or an idiot. The word actually means “big egg”, which in turn refers to testicles. One explanation is that it refers to someone terribly lazy because he has to drag his huge testicles around (though a woman can be a “huevona”, so perhaps not). There’s definitely a Latin American fixation with such matters – see Argentina.
France is big, and thus difficult to encapsulate in one phrase. If we were talking about Tahiti, there’d be the unbeatable “fiu” – which means overcome by lassitude, can’t be bothered to do anything, everything is too much effort... which fits the place admirably. But we’re not talking about Tahiti.
One which springs to mind, however, is “jusqu’au bout”. French people say it all the time and it means “right to the end, to the very limit; nothing’s going to stop us”. It’s where strikes are always going. “We’re going to cede nothing; our demands are non-negotiable. On va aller jusqu’au bout.” Lord knows we’ve been hearing it a lot recently, with rail and air strikes. (It’s particularly ironic when transport unions say they’re going jusqu’au bout – for, in truth, they aren’t going anywhere at all).
Not just strikes. Also police investigations, neighbour disputes, endurance tests, anything. Whenever a French person undertakes anything at all it is with the intention of carrying it out jusqu’au bout. I’ve a feeling the roots are in absolute monarchy and the flipside of revolution and unbridled terror. It’s absolutely part of the French self-image, Liberty Leading The People, weapons raised, breasts bared...
The catch is, of course, that the French, being French, carry on jusqu’au bout – until they don’t, until they stop short, compromise, give in – or find some other cause for which they might go jusqu’au bout, thus letting drop the one they’ve been taking to the limit up to present. As ever, then, there’s a gap between self-image and reality – which doesn’t visibly decrease the hold or power of the self-image.
Mai pen rai
If there's one phrase that sums up Thailand it would be ‘mai pen rai’, which has a number of meanings (a very Thai thing in itself), including ’no thanks’, ‘whatever’, ‘you’re welcome’, ‘everything is okay’ and most commonly ‘don’t worry about it’. In line with Buddhist thinking rooted in ideas of impermanence, karma and acceptance, Thais hate any kind of stress or confrontation, so this is a handy phrase for tourists to know – bartering for tuk-tuks driving you mad? Mai pen rai. Traffic a nightmare? Mai pen rai. Food order mixed up or taking forever (as often happens)? Shrug, smile and say mai pen rai. What's the hurry anyway?
Bella figura is about being well turned-out in life, not just in the cut of a suit. The need to ‘fare bella figura’, which might be translated as ‘putting on a good show’, explains why even Italians who struggle to make ends meet can look like a million dollars when lounging outside a café. Equally, it explains why they’ll make a date with you in that café rather than inviting you back home. It’s not just about empty facades, though. With enough confidence (an abundant natural resource south of the Alps), an Italian can become the bella figura he or she projects.
A City Upon a Hill
Unlike virtually every other people in the world, Americans operate on the basic assumption that everyone wants to be them. Blame John Winthrop, the 17th century lawyer and governor who plucked the phrase “city upon a hill” from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and re-purposed it to illustrate how the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be a beacon of hope for would-be puritans worldwide.
In the intervening 400 years, Winthrop's words have been exploited by everyone from Kennedy to Reagan to inspire the latest generation. Perhaps in the Trump era it would be wise for Americans to remember Winthrop's warning: “the eyes of all people are upon us”.
I’ve always liked the phrase ‘Para os Ingleses Ver’. The literal translation is ‘For the English to see’ as in - ‘Just for show’. It came about in the 1830s when the British navy was trying to enforce the abolition of slavery and the captains of slave ships coming into Brazil would hide the slaves below decks and put containers of other imports such as cotton for the inspectors to see. It is a common, albeit quite old-fashioned, phrase nowadays.
Then there is ‘saudades’ - which is a word Brazilians are very proud of allegedly not having an equivalent in English. It refers to such a deep sense of yearning or longing for a place or person. If a Brazilian is overseas they will always have ‘saudades’ for Brazil, no matter how much they like where they are. It is the subject of hundreds of bittersweet sambas and songs.
As the former Spanish colony of Alto Peru, it’s sometimes claimed Bolivia has older, “better” Spanish than other South American countries. What’s certain is that the language is enriched by both Quechua words and folksy references. To be in love is “estar camote” – literally, “to be sweet potato-ed”. This was, and remains, a highly prized staple in the Andean high plains.
To be hungover is “chaqui”, derived from the Quechua for “dry” and used also to describe the sensation after chewing coca for too long.
Bolivians add the Spanish suffix for diminutives, “ito” and “ita”, to everything. Having towered Lerch-like over them on visits, I’ve wondered if this habit is because they’re generally of very low stature. But I think it’s mainly a way of being kind or sweet. “Dame un besito, mi amorcito, ahorita” means “Give me a little kiss my little love right little now.”