Strange But True: There are no right words — in English


Q: Drawing on some practically untranslatable words from the world's languages, what are a few that might be welcome additions to English?

A: Let's start with the Yiddish word "kvell," meaning "to glow with pride and happiness at the success of others (often family members)," says Steve Mirsky in "Scientific American" magazine, citing psychologist Tim Lomas's cross-cultural linguistics study for the "Journal of Positive Psychology." Other languages lack a single word to express this idea.

Have you ever felt so excited about waiting for someone that you keep going outside to check if they've arrived? There's an Eskimo Inuit word for that: "iktsuarpok." As Lomas explains, the value of "untranslatable" words is that they may give voice to hitherto unlabeled experiences. Consider the Georgian word "shemomedjamo" for continuing to eat even when full because it was just so enjoyable; or "utepils" in Norwegian for drinking beer outside on a hot day; or the Portuguese "desbundar" for becoming uninhibited while having fun. "Bantu's even more specific 'mbukimvuki' involves whipping off your clothes to dance," Mirsky adds. "Hey, it's tough to dance in tight pants."

And one of Mirsky's favorite experiences, now named, is the Swedish "gokotta" for "waking up early to go outside to hear the morning's first birds sing."

Q: You insectophiles out there are probably well aware of what water striders can do on a routine basis. But are you aware of the splash made last year by imitative roboticists?

A: As its name suggests, a water strider can indeed walk on water, but it can hop upward from a watery surface as well — "one of the natural world's niftiest tricks," says Stephen George in "Discover" magazine. Now researchers at Korea's Seoul National University and Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have emulated the insect's biomechanics to create a microrobot that can vault 5.5 inches — more than 10 times its height — without breaking surface tension. "Made from ultralight components, the tiny bot weighs just 0.002 ounce and gets its leaping power from a built-in catapult mechanism." As the magazine put it, it was "a super-tiny bot making history in a single bound."

Q: How are next-generation sensors making baseball bats (and other sports equipment) smarter than ever?

A: The name of the game here is MEMS, for micro-electromechanical systems, tiny machines with elements about the thickness of a human hair, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and pressure sensors, says Karen Lightman in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine.

For example, if you want to analyze a baseball player as he whips the bat around, you need to consider rotational angles and swing speed, and now sensor-fusion hardware and software are able to synthesize data output from multiple sources in real time. Consider the smart baseball bat add-on developed by the University of Michigan's Noel Perkins and the University of Pittsburgh's William Clark. In 2014 Clark's new company, Diamond Kinetics, rolled out its first commercial product, Swing Tracker, a lightweight sensing accessory that tracks 15 different swing metrics, including power, speed, efficiency and distance the bat travels in the hitting zone. Mounted to the knob of the bat, it captures "11,000 data points per second to analyze swing data and shares that information with coaches via Bluetooth to a mobile device."

Baseball not your sport? Sensor-based equipment can also help boost your performance for golf, tennis, basketball and others.

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