The beauty of language: Saying so much in just a few words

The other day, after dropping of my kids at school, I switched from the High School Musical soundtrack to NPR - per my typical morning routine. As I stared out at the sea of red brake lights heading south on Lake Shore Drive my mind began to wander until a snippet of an interview with Ishmael Beah about his new novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, grabbed my attention and snapped me out of my quiet revery.

Beah was explaining how in his native language, Mende (the primary language spoken in Sierra Leon), a soccer ball is described by the components used to make it - a "nest or air" or "a vessel that carries air." I found that imagery to be perfect in every way, making me immediately picture an elite soccer player gently lofting a seemingly floating ball into the air.

While I was still absorbing the essence of the English translation, Beah shared yet another moving phrase over the airwaves. In Mende, the phrase, sunset or "night came suddenly," is spoken as "the sky rolled over and changed its sides." And, once again, I was struck by the beauty of language, and I couldn't help looking up at the pre-dusk sky a little differently that evening.

Maybe it's because I'm a writer who strives to try to find the right words to bring my stories to life, but I just couldn't get the those two phrases out of my head. They evoked such dramatic and perfect imagery - something I can only strive to replicate in my own tales.

Finding words that evoke strong images in other languages

After listening to the interview with Beah, I tried to think of other words whose literal translations always paint images in my mind.

The first one that popped into my head is a phrase I learned in a French class I took a few years ago: lèche-vitrine. In  English, we use the phrase "window shopping." But, the literal translation is "to lick the windows." I can't think of a more perfect description to make me think of an envious shopper with his or her face pressed up against a store window, longingly staring at a highly coveted item.

In search of more beautifully descriptive words, I went online and hit the language jackpot. Here are a few of my favorite ones (so far):

In Japanese:
Yoko meshi. The literal translation of the word is "a meal eaten sideways." It's used to refer to the stress that comes from trying to speak a foreign language.

In German:
Kummerspeck. The word is used to describe weight gain brought on by emotional overeating. It literally translates as "grief bacon."

In French:
L'esprit de l'escalier. The phrase means "the spirit of the staircase," but it's used to refer to a comeback response that comes to mind much too late - when you are on your way down the stairs.

In Italian:
Cavoli Riscaldati. The word is used to describe a failed attempt to save a doomed relationship. It literally translates to "reheated cabbage."

To me, these are all so perfect in creating meaningful, relatable emotions, and it's something I hope to continue to aspire to in my writing - even if it's just in English.

What are some of your favorite words or phrases that conjure up beautiful images in English? Please share your top picks in the comments below.

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