20 000 Words of Madness

Taken into consideration that I am still in awe of the fact that it's possible to flip a switch and the light comes on, imagine my wonderment when I first beheld an electronic English/Chinese (and vice versa) dictionary. Not only beheld but be-heard! Yes when I prodded it with a little stick, out came a tiny little voice uttering, with a Hong Kong/American accent: "Bollocks". What a singular piece of machinery! It had many other functions such as mahjong, maps of every city in the world and some kind of valet service, but it was the dictionary that fascinated me most. How was it possible to cram that many words - with voices! – into that little space?

When I got an email from a Mr. Wong asking me to translate 20 000 English words into Norwegian for an electronic dictionary, I was therefore delighted. Now I would get to see the inside of an electronic dictionary and also record the words. I would be the little voice saying "bollocks" with a Norwegian accent! 20 000 word would be a breeze, Mr. Wong assured me. English word "overcoat", Norwegian word "øverkøøt", that kind of thing. A couple of weeks of leisurely typing, plain sailing. Or it would have been, I quickly found, if the English words had been normal English words like "gardening", "slapper" or "foreign ministry". Those words or any like them were in fact not featured at all. No, "ineluctable", "impecunious", "arthropod", "extemporaneous", "fimble-famble" and "emetic" were the order of the day, not to mention "claymore"(a Scottish two-edged sword).

Though the above are surely shining examples of English at its best, putting once and for all to rest the debate about whether locals' standard of the language is slipping, I must say I was often puzzled as I worked my way down the list. Nay, baffled. The words were indeed English words; the spelling was fineso why did I find myself frequently scurrying to the dictionary to see if they existed? Why the nagging doubt? I realise now it was all to do with the hyphens. I stood faltering before "crisis-afflicted", "heart-searching", "memory-resident" and "intellectual-historical", willing them to have meaning. When I reached "thought-free" I started wondering if there isn't perhaps a parallel or other universe where these words are proudly bandied about? Yes, Mr. Wong could assure me in his soothing email voice, this universe. They are all common English words, widely used.
So I started doubting myself. Had I really lived this long without using the common word "memory-resident" even once?

The project went on.and on. The two weeks soon passed and became three and four. Even if I worked like a maniac without rest or food I could only put away a thousand words a day at the most. In addition I still had my day job (teaching), which was suffering not a little because constantly having to think what "crisis-like" and "wine-adultering" meant was robbing me of my power of speech.

Despite the sleepless night and my speech turning to gibberish, in many ways the translation was an edifying experience, not least because it introduced me to the world of adverbs in a big way. According to the creators of the database, not only can any two words when joined with a hyphen become a word in its own right, but any word can be made into an adverb, simply by adding the letters -ly. "Town-planningly" came out as a clear favourite here, but there was also "under-challengedly", "high-prioritily", and of course the adverbial form of "intellectual-history" namely "intellectual-historically". And let's not forget the description of how people like Arnold Schwarzenegger walk through life: "broad-shoulderedly".

Perhaps anticipating puzzlement in the casual observer of these words, the creators of the database had added explanations to facilitate a speedier translation. These came in immensely helpful. How else would I have guessed that "Couldn't care less" actually means "was unable to be careless"? Or that a "beagle" is a "church officer or assistant"? Thus I was relieved to find that "town-planningly" really does have a meaning, and that it is "in a way of well-planning with respect to town development", and that "crisis-like" means "similar to a crisis". And "tendency-wise", which at first seemed downright daunting, at once became clear when I looked at the explanation: "Showing sound judgment and keen perception in the light of tendency".

I slogged on, word for awe-inspiring word. My social life went to the dogs as I worked every day from 5.30 am to well after midnight, staggering dizzily through a world of English I had no idea existed. I only surfaced briefly on Saturdays to tell my friends about the latest new English words like "reflex-like" (that likes the reflex), "dance-like" (fond of dance) "deadliness" (no longer alive) and "deafening" (turn a deaf ear to). I found out that the real meaning of "big-boned" is actually skinny, with its inevitable adverb, "big-bonedly" meaning "in skinniness". For the foreign student of English it will come as some relief to learn that both "forbidden" and "forbidding" mean "not allowed". Yes! I've always said English has too many words anyway. Why not pare them down a little?

After five weeks of non-stop writing, or rather, finding words I didn't know existed, I found myself in "half-relief" (semi-pain) and it sometimes felt like I'd been "mangled"(cut without permission) but I got a certain "enjoyment" (experiencing with joy) out of it as well. However for most of the time I felt "suicide-prone" (tending to kill oneself).

The good thing is, in Norwegian adjectives and adverbs are the same, so I was able to translate "high-prioritily" into just "high priority" - høy prioritet. This was much appreciated by Mr. Wong, who found my reluctance to translate non-existing words exasperating. He strongly indicated that if I "felt" they didn't exist, I could just make them up; after all, that's what the creators of the database had done. So next time you're puzzled by hard-to-fathom entries in your high-technologically-challengedly dictionary, rest-assuredly it's only been-translated by people like-me-ly.

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