Sunday, July 20, 2014


Mamihlapinatapai is my new favorite word.  I had no idea it existed until yesterday, when I found it while looking for a better way to describe "a person who goes first" as I was writing about Lupita's and Erica's blogs.

According to the 1994 Guinness World Book of Records (not my usual source for definitions except when discussing "the world's most succinct word"), Mamihlapinatapai means, "a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves."  It comes from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, which is spoken by exactly one remaining native speaker. 

Since I can personally guarantee that Mamihlapinatapai will never appear on the AP English Literature & Composition exam, why is any of this important to us?

Because it reminds us that we humans are immensely creative in identifying and describing abstract concepts that are important to our understanding, whether the terms we use appear in textbooks or not.  I am absolutely fascinated by the fact that a tiny electrical charge in the gray blob between my ears somehow leads me to experience a thought which can move my muscles to disturb the air in front of me or bang on this keyboard in such a way that you'll experience a tiny electrical charge in your gray blob.  Over thousands of years, people in every culture have explained this and other mysteries by inventing terms and languages (using words, sounds, numbers, pictorial symbols) that tell stories and use metaphors.  Think about how we describe the Internet-- which most of us don't understand very well-- as real estate ("web sites"), or plumbing ("pipes"), or transportation ("information superhighway"), etc.

We are losing elements of our natural world and the cultures that enable us to convey meaning to each other, and we are losing the ability to define and share reality for ourselves.  What happens to Mamihlapinatapai when Cristina Calderon and the handful of people who understand her die?  The next time you sit down to write an essay, ask yourself: Am I completing a meaningless exercise for a grade, or am I-- in the spirit of Montaigne-- trying to express my innermost thinking in a way another human being can understand?  

Whether or not Mamihlapinatapai survives as a word, and to whatever extent we communicate effectively with each other, the concept it represents will most certainly survive as a phenomenon we experience in the world.  Mamihlapinatapai is what happens in every classroom on every first day of school in those moments when teachers and students stare at each other, past the familiar clichés, pep talks and false promises, silently pleading with each other to take the first steps beyond talk, hoping that this time there will be something different, something more...

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