The book 'The Meaning of Tingo' is a list of words from languages all over the world which have very specific, not to say very unusual, meanings. Words which cannot be translated.

The meaning of 'tingo'


Read the article (you can also listen to the audio while you read). Next go to Task and do the activity.

Audio icon Download audio 2.81MB (right click & save)

The Meaning Of Tingo

By Chris Rose

I recently found a book by the writer Adam Jacot de Boinod called The Meaning Of Tingo.  As a native speaker of English, I was a bit confused. I had never heard of this word “tingo”, and was curious about the title of the book.

As I soon found out, even if you are not a native speaker, then going to your dictionary and looking up the word “tingo” will not help. In fact, you probably won’t find the word “tingo” there at all, and not least because of the fact that “tingo” is not an English word. “Tingo”, it seems, is one of very many words which cannot be translated into English – or at least one of those words which are very difficult to try and translate into English, or even into your own native language.

The book The Meaning of Tingo is a kind of dictionary, but perhaps a dictionary you will not find useful in the same way that your usual dictionary is. The Meaning of Tingo is a list of words from languages all over the world which have very specific, not to say very unusual, meanings.

English is a language that has always been omnivorous, taking words from other languages to enrich its own vocabulary. English has taken the words pyjamas from Hindi to describe the loose clothes you may wear when you go to bed, croissant from French to describe a particular kind of sweet bread roll, or catastrophe from Greek to describe a particularly bad event, or angst from German to describe a particular mixture of fear and anger. And these are just a few of the many examples of words that English has made its own.

However, it is interesting to look at words that even a greedy language such as English has not (at least yet) made its own.

Japanese, for example, may have given us manga to describe a particular style of comic book, but the English have not yet adopted the useful expression katahara itai  - laughing so much that your stomach hurts. The Japanese, it seems, have many such useful words – another one for example, is bakku-shan - a girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front. Have you ever wanted to say that in merely one word? Now you can.

As well as Japanese, it seems that German is also a useful language. German often makes “compound words” – one or more words joined together to make a new word. Putzfimmel, for example, is a mania for cleaning while Backpfeifengesicht apparently describes the kind of face that people want to hit.

Jacot de Boinod’s book is not only amusing, but, he claims, shows that way in which a language is inextricably linked to the culture in which it is spoken. Is it really true, then, that in Germany there are a lot of people who have faces which other people want to punch? Or that Japan has more than its share of of bakku-shan? The reader may not at first be convinced by this, but when you read that Hawaiians have 108 words for sweet potato, 65 for fishing nets and 47 for banana (simply because in Hawaii there are indeed 108 different kinds of sweet potato, 65 fishing nets and 47 different types of banana), it makes more sense. Albanians are famous for their moustaches – and indeed the Albanian language contains 27 different words for “moustache”-  madh, for example, is a bushy moustache, posht is a moustache hanging down at the ends while a fshes is a long moustache with short hairs. People from Holland and Belgium appear to be more fun-loving. Dutch has a word uitwaaien - “walking in windy weather for fun”, while people in the Netherlands apparently often go to plimpplampplettere. What are they doing? Just think about the sound – they are skimming stones on water.

More evidence of this link between language and culture can be seen in the words which different languages have for jobs which exist only in their cultures. Some of these jobs are pretty unusual: a koshatnik in Russian is a dealer in stolen cats, while Spanish speakers in central America often have to work with an aviador - a government employee who only shows up on payday.

So, what exactly does “tingo” mean then? Well, to find that out, you’ll just have to find the book. No, not really! It's from the Pascuense language of Easter Island, meaning "to borrow objects from a friend's house, one by one, until there's nothing left".


Some reviewers of the book have said that it contains a number of mistakes. For example, the etymology, or explanation of where words come from. They have also said that many definitions lack explanation, which suggests that his research is really quite superficial. Perhaps most importantly, one reviewer noted that de Boinod writes that the word “papa” is used to mean “father” in 70% of all languages in the world. This seems interesting, but then the reviewer points out that seeing as there are more than 6,000 languages in the world (a fact which de Boinod includes), this means that he must have looked at around 4,200 languages – when he says that he looked at only 270 dictionaries!





Hullo again!

I seem to have found the way to post a comment in the right place. I also seem to have found another mispelled word...

The fourth sentence in the task window goes:

'The writer thinks ITS logical that there are so many words for "sweet potato" in the Hawaiian language.'

I have a question too. The article states: "The book The Meaning of Tingo is a kind of dictionary"; the statement in the task "The Meaning of Tingo is a dictionary" is supposed to be false; can you explain why?

Thank you for your time.

Hello birba,

Thank you for highlighting these two errors in the task - the correct form should be it's [it is] and the correct answer to the T/F question should be True. We check all our exercises for errors before we publish them but we are only human and errors occasionally slip through! Fortunately we have eagle-eyed users such as yourself to help us!


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

This article is very interesting. It is good to know that there are words neither google nor human can translate. Sometimes it is devastating when I try to explain one foreign word I have to use so many words in my own language, or even sentences. Such a book can be useful, but from the article I can't be sure what exactly is the book's purpose whether it is academic or entertaining.

Hi mates!

I really article, Ithink it's very curious and amacing to learn more interesting thinks. I'm totally agree with the writer point of view, about the useless of the dictionaries, and if this kind of dictionary it's not useful, I believe it will be no so much interesting for the readers.

I really appreciate your articles and this one seems to me very good, indeed. I´m Catalan, it´s just a small area of six million people living on it but we have different words depending of where we are so to explain different little differences.

This article was very interesting for me; I knew that every language has some words that can not be translated but these strange cases were new for me. In Spanish we have several of those words such as “botellón” which is the activity of going out and drinking in public places (such parks and squares) as well as going from one night club to another. In Venezuela the word “ranchos” which is used to call the houses built in the mountains without permits were poor people live or “martillar” which is the verb used to describe the action of public employees (usually police or transit police) of asking money to a citizen in order to avoid a penalty or an uncomfortable situation, the distinctive of this word is that in this case the authority is who suggest or ask for the money. I think that these words describe or reflect social context of those societies that use them, for that reason there are no translation in other languages.

Your texts:

Tatiana writes “I have read this article and there is a mistake in it! Koshatnik is not a dealer in stolen cats! I'm Russian, I don't know any dealers in stolen cats, but their name’s not koshatnik, certainly! But there is such a word in our language and it means a person that loves cats very much, who has got cats in the house. Also, a sobachnik is a person who has got a dog, or has got a dog not only for pleasure, but for breeding and selling the puppies.” Editor’s note: Thanks Tatiana for pointing that out. The mistake is not actually in our article, as we only write that the book we are describing says that. Your message seems to support the critics mentioned in our postscript, above, who call into question some of the content of the book.

Yulianna Vilkos writes “I've just read the Tingo article on your web-site and found that I don't agree with Tatiana's corrections. "Koshatnik" definitely does not refer to a person. If it is ever used in Russian, it means a place where lots of cats are or where they are being bred. I am one hundred percent confident about this. As for "sobachnik", that sounds like total nonsense to me.”

I absolutely agree with Tatiana. I am from Russia too. And I may say that the word koshatnik does refer to a person. Koshatnik  is a person, who not only loves and has cats at home (and breed and sells kittens), but rather obsessed with cats - in good or bad sense.  So it may have a positive or a negative connotation, but, of course, it all depends on the context. In the net you may find lots of sites devoted to cats, offering information to real cat-lovers (or, koshatnikov). Here of course the connotation is positive, maybe a bit humorous. For instance I may give a sentence take from the article "120 traits of a real cat-lover (or, koshatnika)" : 
A mouse in a slipper will make a real koshatnik smile tenderly, a rat will make him proud.
And now the example of the word with a negative meaning :
I am sick and tired of this koshatnik upstairs! I can't stand the smell of his cats any more! The word here means a person who is so obsessed with his or her cats ( by the way, the feminine gender of koshatnik will be koshatnitsa) that it became a kind of a disease. 
Of course the word is colloquial. And if we speak about the meaning given the book about steeling cats , it really existed, but this meaning is old-fashioned, not used now and almost totally forgotten.  And as far as sobachnik is concerned, it means the same, but refers to dogs ("sobaka" in Russian means a dog). So it makes a good deal of sense here, in Russia!

Hi PolinaS

Thanks for commenting. I really liked your positive example of a koshatnika. My mother is a bit of a koshatnika, she has 11 cats. Whenever I visit her, I can never tell which ones are which. There is a fairly new expression that has become quite common in American films and TV series: 'crazy cat woman'. I think it could as easily describe a man. This refers to a women who lives on her own and lavishes her affection on cats rather than people. 

Thanks again


The LearnEnglish Team