Despite his French name (he’s actually of Swiss origin), Londoner Adam Jacot de Boinod descends from a typical British eccentric ancestry: he has been fascinated with strange words since he was a child, although; at that time he did not imagine he would make a living of this odd passion. (Article updated in September ’17). Adam’s worked at the BBC with Stephen Fry on the famous and popular BBC’s QI show (for people living outside the UK, QI is short for «quite interesting»). He then published three hit books on extraordinary words with Penguin (The meaning Of Tingo, Toujours Tingo and The Wonder of Whiffling). The meaning of Tingo has been translated into twelve different languages.
He’s now releasing the Tingo Calendar 2014 (out of print now) — a calendar featuring the strangest words from around the world and their secret, incredible and funny meanings, with text in 5 languages (English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian). With its eye-catching design and fantastically strange definitions, the Tingo Calendar offers you a daily feast of words from 1 January to 31 December.
Adam is a word collector of sorts, the kind you would expect to find in Victorian times… thanks to him we discover the everlasting beauty of words, with a preference for African and Asian languages. Reading his books, you will be amazed to discover that there’s a word for almost every feeling or human fact, even the weirdest!
Assimil: When did this love affair with foreign and strange words begin?
Adam Jacot de Boinod: When I was 7 years old learning Latin words whose English definition I didn’t understand!
A: Tell us about the Assimil multilingual calendars you’re releasing this autumn. What’s the idea behind the project?
AJB: To educate and entertain in equal measure. To celebrate the joy of words and diversity of languages. We must do our best to sustain them and help them flourish as many are at risk of extinction. Iceland has managed to keep alive its native tongue, even though it is spoken by no more than 275,000 people; and the ancient Nordic language of Faroese, thought to have been once spoken by the Vikings, was preserved from extinction by the Danish government, who even went as far as putting grammar hints and verb declensions on the sides of milk cartons.
A powerful political purpose is another force for reviving an old language. Resurgent nationalism helped bring Irish back from the Celtic twilight; while the establishment of the nation of Israel has turned Hebrew from a written language into a proudly spoken national tongue.
A: You’ve also launched an app on the App Store. Is it a game?
AJB: Yes it’s a quiz called Tingo, an iPhone App on interesting words, with 3 answers per question of which 2 are deliberately plausible but incorrect!
A: What have you learnt about language in general, writing your different books?
AJB: How magnificent, telling, thought-provoking and quirky are the definitions of each of their vocabularies.
A: Do you think that apart the natural needs, people of the world have universal concepts in common that one can find in words?
AJB: Yes though interestingly certain universal sentiments have no commonality of expression across languages (such as how we articulate animal sounds, say “ouch”, respond to people sneezing, say cheese to a photographer etc. etc.) For example:
Bulgarian: Зеле! (Zele!) – Cabbage!
Danish: Sig ‘appelsin’ (say orange)
German: Spaghetti / Käsekuchen (cheesecake)
Russian: Скажи ‘изюм! (Skazhi ‘izyum!’) – Say ‘raisins!’
Spanish: Patata (potato)
Swedish: Säg omelett! (say omelette)
A: What is the most extraordinary language according to you?
AJB: Japanese as it is so contrasting to European languages in its vocabulary. Here are some of my favourites:
mono-no-aware appreciating the sadness of existence
mukamuka feeling so angry one feels like throwing up
okuri-okami a man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to try to molest her once he gets in the door (literally, a see-you-home wolf)
potto to be so distracted or preoccupied that you don’t notice what is happening right in front of you
A: Are you also interested in the different kinds of writing?
AJB: to a point though I can only follow Greek and Romanised lettering
A: What are your 3 fav words (if we except tingo of course)?
AJB: wo-mba (Bakweri, Cameroon) the smiling in sleep by children.
Nakhur (Persian) a camel that will not give milk until her nostrils are tickled.
Areodjarekput (Inuit) to exchange wives for a few days only.
A: How many languages do you speak?
AJB: Just English although I was schooled in Latin and Ancient Greek
A: What language would you like to learn before you die?
AJB: Italian as it sounds so rhythmic and lyrical!
You can read a French version for this interview here : http://blog.assimil.com/entretien-adam-jacot-boinod
Available in October:
– English-speaking version: Tingo Calendar (Assimil, ISBN 978-2-7005-064-6, 12,95€)
– Spanish version: 365 palabros del mundo mundial (Assimil, ISBN 978-2-7005-0641-9, 12,95 €)
– Italian version: 365 parole straniere (Assimil, ISBN 978-88-96715-25-3, 12,95€)
– Dutch version: 365 vreemde woorden (Assimil, ISBN 978-2-7005-0643-3, 12,95€)
– French version: 365 mots étranges et étrangers (Assimil, ISBN 978-2-7005-0640-2, 12,95€)