It’s embarrassing to admit, but my command of English is a bit worse than I thought, and I bet, most Americans would find that they are in the same situation.
In traveling I’ve learned so much of language is dependent on cultural knowledge, or common understandings gained by shared experiences or shared cultures. And even dictionary definitions are sometimes too precise or too vague to help.
A while back I was talking with a Chinese-speaking friend who asked me a question that I thought, at the time, was pretty simple to explain, “What is the difference between the words, cute and beautiful?” Easy, right?
“Well,” I said with a self-assured cockiness, “beautiful means something that looks good, something that’s attractive to the eye, and cute, well, cute…”
I hesitated glancing up at the ceiling, “well, that means something that is, well, cute…” I paused and rubbed my forehead briefly.
“It…is something that is small….and…kind of like beautiful…but its different…” I stopped. I thought. I started over, “Cute is something that is small and pleasing to the eye, like beautiful is, but different…”
I took a sip of my beer (stalling technique).
Though we spoke different first languages, I could read the tilt of his head and his right raised eyebrow.
“So, cute is something small?” he asked.
“Sort of…” I stammered and took another sip of my beer.
“Cute things are little, or no, wait, they’re attractive cause they seem little…” (Another sip.)
“Ah,” he said, peering at me through pierced eyes.
“So then everything little is cute?”
I pictured my baby photos.
“No, I said.”
This was going nowhere.
This was not the first time I’d run across a word I use on a daily basis that I just could not quite describe to someone who didn’t know what it meant, and over the first few months traveling the world I have come to realize that there are many words we use without really being able to pinpoint an exact definition. These words do not carry a meaning without the other person having somewhat of an understanding or at least a shared cultural knowledge—the word’s nuanced meaning cannot be derived from a dictionary definition.
The discussion continued for about an hour, and since (for better or worse) Hollywood movies and TV shows were about our only shared cultural experiences, we settled that Julia Roberts was beautiful and Sarah Jessica Parker was cute.
I still don’t think he got it.
One of the challenges I found in trying to get my point across was, at first, I tried using Chinese actresses like Zhang Ziyi(章子怡), think Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon(卧虎藏龙) or alternatively House of Flying Daggers, but the western tendency to see most Asian women as “cute,” prevented me from being able to get this across (this is a whole other blog entry and cultural discussion we’ll save for later).
As we finished off our beers and headed out for the evening, I’m sure he thought that I, along with the rest of the English-speaking world, was down right crazy.
Then, just today, I tried to explain to a Chinese friend what the word “dork” meant. Hmm, here we go again. (if that’s easy for you, try to explain the difference between a dork and a geek?)