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The Language of Love for Language Lovers


Lexicographer Erin McKean’s latest book, That’s Amore! is available just in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s the perfect gift about, as the subtitle says, “The Language of Love for Lovers of Language.”

In this slender volume McKean has collected some of the more vivid and interesting expressions about love from more than forty different languages. And what phrasebook could be more important? After all, as Christopher J. Moore suggests in his brief introduction, those in love are so often at a loss for words yet never far from the need to communicate their feelings.


McKean helpfully organizes the phrases into categories: Love at First Sight, Courtship and Seduction, Pain and Rejection, Declarations and Proposals, and Terms of Endearment.

Looking for a ready term to describe love at first sight? Try mamihlapinatapai [mah-mee-lah-pee-nah-tah-PYE], from the now extinct Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego: “Listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the ‘most succinct word,’ this expresses the befuddlement that can strike us when love at first sight hits. It describes the sensation of being ‘at a loss which way to go’.”

For the not-so-innocent, That’s Amore! notes the word for flirt in several languages. In Greek, a kamaki [kah-MAH-kee] is “a man who spends his time ‘fishing’ for young women,” whereas a “fickle flirt in French” is said to “avoir un couer d’artichaut” [ah-vwahr uhnh keur dahr-tee-SHOH] – “have an artichoke heart.” In Spanish, un picaflor refers to a “flower picker.”

Not to be the killjoy, but these things often end in tears – and everyone has a term for that condition. The Chinese say xiang si [shee-ahng suh], “literally meaning ‘thinking about your loved one.’ In an unhealthily obsessive manner.”

The Thai phrase for “broken-hearted” is òk hàk [ok HAHK], while lovelorn Indonesians say they are patah cinta [PAH-tah TCHIN-ta], which literally means “broken by love.”

Elsewhere, McKean has stressed not reading too much meaning into these phrases that we find exotic: “I think people who try to make every foreign phrase into a long discussion about how ‘They’ think differently (certainly not like us) are exactly the same people who ruin perfectly good novels by insisting everything in them has to be a symbol for something or other. (Usually something disturbing.) Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a word is just lovely to hear or fun to understand, and not the banner-carrier of an entire culture.”

I’m entirely in accord with her perspective, yet there a few of phrases that made me think of interesting if obvious distinctions. For example, the Swahili phrase wewe ndiyo barafu wa moyo wangu appears in the section on “Declarations and Proposals.” Pronounced WEH-weh n-DEE-yo bah-RAH-foo wah MO-yo WAHNG-goo, I think it’s fair to observe that the sub-Saharan climate has something to do with its meaning. As McKean points out: “Whereas in English the coldhearted are cruel and unfeeling, in Swahili the coldhearted are deeply in love. Wewe ndiyo barafu wa moyo wangu, which translates as ‘you are ice for my heart,’ is a way of expressing a very deep love for someone.”

I’ll bet having “warm feelings” for someone doesn’t mean the same thing in Swahili as it does in northern climes.

To my ear, many of the phrases don’t sound particularly romantic, and I’d wonder what a sweetheart was up to if she tried them out on me. The main exceptions come from the Italian where, I suppose, even insults – said with a sweet smile – might sound very amorous.

And in almost all the languages, terms of endearment probably are a safe risk. A certain fast food chain has probably ruined gordito – literally, “little fat one” in Spanish – for romantic discourse, but the Russian golubka and the German Knuddelbär are good substitutes. Golubka [gah-LOOP-kuh] is “little dove” and Knuddelbär [KNUD-uhl-bair] is literally “cuddle bear,” not like a teddy bear, but connoting “not just softness and sweetness, but protective strength, as well.”

The Italians of course have their own menagerie of love terms. Topolina [toh-poh-LEE-nah] means “little mouse” and passerotto means “little sparrow.” Cucciola mia [KOOTCH-oh-lah MEE-ah] is literally “my little animal” – as McKean notes, it’s “a pet name that implies someone is your pet!”

Animal lovers – pun irresistible – might be interested in some naughty phraseology. “An especially impolite [euphemism for sex] is abbiamo trombato come ricci: where the English do this ‘like rabbits/bunnies,’ the Italian animal is the hedgehog – making one think that the passion must be more intense to overcome that animal’s natural defenses.”

More innocently, consider some phrases for what English-speakers call “puppy love:” the Dutch use kalverliefde [KAHL-vuhr-LEEF-duh], literally “calf-love” – “the common idea, perhaps, being the wobbliness and unsteadiness of newborn[s]” – while the Indonesians refer to this phenomenon as cinta monyet [TCHIN-tah MON-yet], or “monkey love.”

If this bestiary is off-putting, try zlato [ZLAH-toh], Czech for “gold,” or zlatíčko, which means “little gold,” something small and precious. If your sweetheart is Iranian, try the Persian khordani [khor-dan-EE], “which translates as ‘eatable’ – calling someone khordani is like calling someone delicious in English, only stronger.”

And when words won’t do, seal it with a kiss. McKean has a couple pages on that subject, too.

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