Names for things that don’t have names

In far more serious news, I have been trying to come up with names for things that don’t have names.

One such nameless thing is the little bit of water that collects on coffee cups after the dishwasher cycle.

I know I should be more concerned about whether or not to go to war against Isis, but every time I unload the dishwasher I find myself trying to come up with a name for that little sneak of water that is waiting to ambush the cutlery.

Other languages have names for things that English does not. Italian has a word for the sleepy feeling you get after lunch. Scottish has a word for the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name. A South American language called Yaghan has a word for ‘looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do’.

Language is wonderful stuff. It is a shifting, evolving, smorgasbord of creativity. You can’t get too uptight about controlling it. That’s why I enjoy poetry, the way unexpected collisions of words can create new meanings or add nuance to familiar things.

All around us, Maori place names are filled with poetry that we take for granted. I often bike to work alongside the Waikareao Estuary. I don’t think English could ever come up with a name as beautiful as Waikareao.

Broken into its separate components, Waikareao means water, rippling and bright. The combined meaning adds up to sparkling water but the name has far more nuance than that. Think about those early mornings when the sunlight sparkles on the estuary with Mauao in the distance. Waikareao, water shimmering in the dawn. When pronounced properly it even sounds like shimmering water. It is a beautiful name.

Translation can give us some giggly accidents. A friend of mine who speaks English as a second language once said it was nice to get outside for a breath of fresh wind.

The other day that same friend misheard something I’d said as ‘awesome sauce’. So of course, we had to come up with our own meaning for awesome sauce.

The internet tells me that people already use awesome sauce as a single word, as in, “that movie was awesomesauce.” I prefer my own definition: an expression to describe the act of improving something to a point of excellence. “Let’s pour some awesome sauce on that.”

Back to my dishwasher problem, I have decided on a name for that little after-thought of water that gets left behind on the coffee cup. It is a plash. Plash is a genuine Old English word that was once used for puddle. Why not revive it for this specific purpose? Now we can say, “Unload the bottom draw first so you don’t splash the plash on the dry dishes.”

I have not yet come up with a satisfactory word for the gap behind cubicle doors in public toilets. I think it deserves a word of its own, that changeable turning space that requires an awkward amount of negotiation, especially for back packers. Perhaps there is a word for it in Yaghan.

I do have a name for that thing people do when they interrupt you at the kitchen sink. Approaching the sink like a busy highway, they spot their gap and swoop in to rinse a plate or fill a glass of water, never mind that you’re halfway through washing the coffee plunger.

I have decided to call it swinking, taken from a mash-up of sink and swoop. You can use it politely: “Do you mind if I swink in?” Or more aggressively: “Don’t be such a swinker.”

It has broader applications. Several people approach a door and one of them swinks through. Thanks to my new word, you know exactly what just happened. That’s the fun of language. You’re welcome.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 March 2015. Reproduced with permission.