Wednesday, April 07, 2010

In Need Of An Antonym

I heard an interesting This American Life episode (is there any other kind?) several months ago, the point of which was NOT necessarily words, but had this fascinating segment that had to do with missing words. That is, words that we seem to need, but don't actually have.

I remember Heather talking about this once: as she was translating a letter from a Finnish friend, she paused and said "Sorry, but this word actually has no translation." I was perplexed: what? Just…translate it! In my mind, anything you can say in one language, you can say in another. She explained that there are some words that simply do not pass that language test. Her example: there's a single word in Finnish that means "bigger than a hill, but smaller than a mountain." Turns out that we don't have a single word that means that same thing. We can "translate" it as I have done, but that single word…doesn't exist in English.

The woman on TAL explained that this is called a Lexical Gap: words that we ought to have, that seem logical to have…but we don't. Her example - the one that is used most often to illustrate the point - is that we have a single word for a child whose parents have died: "orphan." But…we don't have a single word for parents whose child has died. A lexical gap.

So. Someone who can do no wrong might be referred to as "perfect," or "flawless." Lots of synonyms for those words. What I need…is an antonym. And not just "imperfect," or "flawed"…those things suggest a state where perfection is lacking, but not necessarily the utter absence of it altogether. I need a single word that means "someone who can do no right." Any takers on this one?


Blogger Strangeite said...

I know of two different words that refer to a person that can do no right.

The one I am most familiar with is the Appalachia term that basically means a no-good loser that fails at everything they touch and has no redeemable qualities. This person would be called a dreg. My great-grandmother, a wonderful mountain woman as tough as nails, would always spit after using the term.

Used in a sentence, "Here comes that damn no-good roust-about dreg. (spit on the ground).

The other term I am familiar with would be the Yiddish term for schlemiel. At least this is what I have always thought the word meant.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Jenn-Jenn, the Mother Hen said...

"schmuck" comes to mind...

12:11 PM  

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