THE BLOG

Untranslatable Words: The Spirit of Aloha

Aloha, as they say in Hawaii. This beautiful word is very apt, for a garland of reasons. This is my first blog for the venerable Huffington Post, which is naturally an exciting occasion for me. In fact, it's really my first blog post ever -- apart from a furtive attempt to "test" my blog on my recently-created website, which I'm not sure anyone has actually read. Indeed, I'm not entirely sure who I am wishing Aloha to here, as my thoughts wing their way through the ether of hyperspace, hopefully to find a receptive audience somewhere on this great planet. But, nevertheless, Aloha to you, whoever you are. And so, as a friendly and evocative welcome, Aloha serves me well as an opening to my blog. It will also hopefully set the tone from here on in.

But the word is also fitting for a more substantive reason. This blog was prompted by a somewhat ambitious project -- some might say too ambitious (or worse!) -- that I've recently initiated, namely, to create a dictionary of "untranslatable words" relating to wellbeing. I've always been so curious about these kinds of words, and about the role of language in shaping experience more generally. I often wonder, for instance, if a word capturing a certain phenomenon has only been coined in one particular culture, does that mean that only people in that culture experience that phenomenon. Can it really be true that only German people have feelings of schadenfreude, that sense of glee at another person's misfortune? Or, more likely in my opinion, is it that I can still experience these phenomena that I don't have a name for, at least in some vague, inchoate, unarticulated way. But then, unable to name it, the feeling slinks back into the turbulent river of consciousness, drowned beneath the tides of more recognizable states of mind.

So, driven by these kinds of questions, I wanted to create a "positive lexicography" -- a dictionary featuring as many "untranslatable words" relating to wellbeing as I could find. I really had two main aims. Firstly, I figured that these words would provide a unique and vibrant window into the world's cultures, revealing diversity in the way people in different places experience and understand life. More specifically, given that I'm a researcher in positive psychology, I was interested to see if there were differences in the way people constructed and articulated feelings around wellbeing. But my second aim was a little more selfish. I wanted to learn these new words for myself! I thought that, if I did so, I would expand my own horizons, with each of these words opening up emotional states that had previously been obscured to me.

And so, I trawled through websites, blogs, books and academic papers, gathering a respectable haul of 216 such words. Even then I felt I was only scratching the surface! I then analyzed this collection, and published my findings in a paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology. And... it is this project upon which this blog will be based, as I'm aiming to use these words as a platform for reflections on the intersection of language, culture and wellbeing.

Which brings me back, in this first blog post, to Aloha. According to most sources I've seen, this word is far more than a simple greeting. It doesn't translate as just some hearty "hello!" It encompasses meanings of love, compassion, and affection. Indeed, it literally means "presence of breath" -- invoking notions of soul, spirit, and grace -- and seems to capture a whole beautiful way of being. As one introductory guide to Kauai put it, "a life of Aloha is one when the heart is so full it is overflowing with the ability to influence others around you with your spirit." Now, this isn't exactly the way that people in England tend to carry themselves! But, having been captivated by this word, I sure am going to try and bring some Aloha into my life.