Book Review: “Other-Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely from around the World”

Yee-Lum Mak, Other-Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely from around the World (Chronicle Books, 2016).

Jungian analyst Robert Johnson’s oft-quoted words from his book The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden have stayed with me: “Sanskrit has 96 words for love, ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one.”

Given the English language’s predilection for absorbing new words from many cultures, it still has a paucity of beautiful and concise terms for the eternal and universal concepts of love, pain, and the sublime. In her search for the sublime in language, Yee-Lum Mak created Other-Wordly, in which we find “komorebi: the sunlight that filters through the leaves and trees” and “hiraeth: a homesickness for a home which maybe never was.”

Mak is from California and currently completing advanced English studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her love of words began when she stumbled across the Portuguese term for “the love that remains” (saudade), which sparked her search for other “strange and lovely” words.

Some words are striking, respectfully highlighting different cultural norms. Others show a sense of humour about the human condition. Two paired Japanese words let us peek at cultural values, such as “tatemae: what a person pretends to believe” and “honne: what a person truly believes.” A lovely Spanish word describes my favourite activity, “sobremesa: the time spent around the table after dinner talking to the people with whom you shared the meal.” Not wanting to spoil the joy of discovery, I expect most of us in the editorial world can relate to page thirteen: buying books, hoarding books, books piling up—there are words for that!

The entries are clustered into relational groups: one amusing set describes the joy of being a child alone at home with no one watching, a cozy space under the stairs, and a hiding place for prized possessions. Another describes a variety of awkward social moments at a cocktail party. Set in this way, we are invited to go on imaginative journeys with charming words and pictures—a great storytelling feature that gives this tiny book more punch.

The variety of languages this book pulls from is where it gets its charm, but the entire reading experience is also very satisfying. The hardcover has a lovely fabric spine, and the cover art evokes a languid teatime with a book. I’m envious of the thought. (Chronicle Books features these production values on many of its titles, including my favourite tactile book series, Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock.)

The words of Other-Wordly are expressed in illustration by artist Kelsey Garrity-Riley, a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design. Her muted illustrations match the definitions for each page, revealing the feelings and experiences the words evoke. It’s lovely, simple artwork, yet I craved some brighter colours, especially when the words expressed intensity, but that’s a personal preference.

I also felt the lack of a pronunciation guide keenly. Pronunciations are readily provided on Mak’s blog and look elegant, so there is no reason I could see to not include them. It would make the book more shareable if the reader knew how to say some of the more difficult words.

Mak’s well-crafted definitions I appreciated most of all, as she exquisitely described the ineffable moments such words capture. This is a charming book that loves language, and one to turn to if you’re ever at a loss for just the right word.

This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo. It originally appeared in the Editors’ Toronto blog, BoldFace.

Jaye Marsh

Jaye Marsh is a professional flutist and editor of text and graphics in Toronto. Her passions are music, knitting, and words—in no particular order.

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