Tag Archives: #languages

It’s Not Alright (But It’s Okay)

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The subtleties of language. They count. Big time. In a similar way, anyone who thinks that math doesn’t matter, I refer you to How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg, who explains ever-so eloquently the ways in which math permeates our everyday lives – in a cool and very necessary way.

When it comes to everyday language, however, I’d refer you to a piece by Jon Westenberg, who’s got something important to say about the matter, specifically, “Stop telling each other it’s alright. Sometimes, it’s just not.”

The moral of his story can be summed up as follows:

If your startup fails? It’s not alright. But you can get through it.

If your freelance career bombs? It’s not alright. But you can get through it.

If your relationship comes to an end? It’s not alright. But you can get through it.

If your dreams burn out? It’s not alright.

But you can get through it.

It’s straightforward, simple, and to the point. Me likes, in the same way that Robert Fulghum writes about stuff in From Beginning to End.

Unfortunately for those of us living in North America, and who use English as a first language, we’ve become knee-jerk mollycoddlers. You didn’t finish the race? You failed at your attempt to make toast? Your manager doesn’t like you because you’re too nice? That’s okay. You tried your bestest! Here’s a Last Place ribbon to hang on the wall.

For me, the interesting part about this article by Mr. Westenberg has to do with language. Any douchebag can pick up a few swear words in a foreign language, but one of the hardest things to do – naturally and politely – is to learn the right words and expressions in times of great distress or hardship.

And one of the biggest pitfalls second-language learners make is to ask their teacher/friend/native speaker of said language, “How do you say [insert word/phrase from English] in [insert language]?” Instead, you should be asking, “What would you say in [insert language] in this situation?” The difference may seem subtle, but then so is language.

Another complication lies with culture. If you’re learning Arabic online in Des Moines, Iowa through Rosetta Stone, for example, what makes you think Arabic speakers in Egypt say the same thing in the same situation as they do in Iraq?

But, as usual, I’ve digressed. Jon Westenberg was not writing a linguistic analysis of English speakers in Australia, he was merely pointing out that sometimes the truth – as hard as it is to hear – can go much further to helping someone in their time of need than mollycoddling (love that word) a person who’s struggling through a rough time. There are simply occasions when “I’m really sorry. That sucks. It’s not alright.” can do more to help restore one’s bruised ego than any flowery words or feel-good idioms.


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I had a good day yesterday.

I’m like most people. Some days are good, some days are bad, and some days it rains (thank you, Bull Durham). On good days, I think a lot about the word “hope,” and that in turn gets me to thinking about languages and how we express ourselves.

Usually when I want to explore the meaning of a word, I compare the English with the Korean, which often leads to comparing it to the Chinese (roughly 70 percent of Korean words are derived from Chinese characters).

I do this because I’m often fascinated/surprised at the differences we have in our respective etymologies. But that’s the whole point: Language is not uniform around the world and reflects past cultures, histories and beliefs.

What’s interesting about “hope” is that it’s actually one of those rare cases of being – as they say in Korea – “Same-same but different.”

Take a look first at the English roots of the word:

Old English hopian “wish, expect, look forward (to something),” of unknown origin, a general North Sea Germanic word (cf. Old Frisian hopia, Middle Low German, Middle Dutch, Dutch hopen ; Middle High German hoffen “to hope,” borrowed from Low German). Some suggest a connection with hop (v.) on the notion of “leaping in expectation” [Klein].

The word “hope” in Korean is heemang (희망), NOT gidae (기대) as Google Translate would have you believe, and comes from the Chinese xīwàng (希望),  meaning “hope, rare, scarce” and wàng meaning “ambition, full moon, hope, desire, aspire to, expect.”

I suppose you could get creative and say that “hope” to the Chinese and Koreans is like the scarcity of a full moon (i.e. it only happens once every 29.53 days), but in reality they look at it the same way we English speakers do: there is a leap in expectation, an ambition for the rare, or – as the idiom goes in English in extreme cases – to hope against hope.

Then again, maybe languages bore you and you like to cling to the mythological instead, Pandora’s box and all.

Whatever the case, here’s to the hope of another good day, another one of those rare full moons which for those of us in the EST will be on November 4 at 1:24 a.m. EST, making it, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, a Full Beaver Moon.

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