Better Than English

Better Than English


Almost two years ago, I wrote an article, Pena Ajena! It was based upon an article, 25 Handy Words That Simply Don’t Exist In English. The title of my article refers to a Mexican Spanish phrase. Literally it means “grief of others,” but idiomatically it means, “The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation.” I love this stuff, because you not only learn interesting things about language, you also learn something about cultures. For example, I think it is telling that the Mexicans give us “pena ajena” while the Germans give us “backpfeifengesicht” (a face in need of being punched) and “schadenfreude” (the pleasure felt at others’ pain).

It turns out that there is a whole website for this, Better Than English. And it is great. For one thing, the definitions are generally better than one expects from such websites (for example, Urban Dictionary). Its definition of “pena ajena” is, “Shame experienced on behalf of another person, even though that person may not experience shame.” I love the addition that the subject may not be experiencing the shame.

But it goes further than just the definitions. The comments are invaluable. For example, I learned that there is a similar Portuguese phrase, “vergonha alheia,” literally meaning “shame others.” And a different Spanish phrase, “verguenza ajena,” which literally means the same thing. And even the Germans who I unfairly vilify have such a word, as reported by commenter Daniel:

The very same thing: In German there’s a slang verb called fremdschamen as opposed to the regular schamen (to feel ashamed). Fremd translates to foreign.

And then commenter Chris sends us to a word coined by Terence McKenna: “Fardow.” He defines it as, “The embarrassment you feel when someone else fucks up and you just happen to be there…”

The website is set up as a blog, and there seems to be something new there every couple of days. Unlike the increasingly useless Urban Dictionary, it isn’t a free-for-all. So you aren’t going to end up fifty slightly different definitions for the same word because the users can’t be bothered to check if a word is already in the database. Along these same lines, the comments are generally very good—generally discussing the words or phrases in other languages. I didn’t see any trolling or other obnoxious behavior.

For a word freak, the site is a whole lot of fun. I just learned the Basque word “Erdera.” It means, “Any language that is not Basque.” Now that is something you would think Americans would have a word for!

H/T: Andrea English

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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