Adopting, adapting, or abridging a complex idea
Posted Apr 10, 2018
Recently, when introducing their new venture, a popular British beer company promised that this would allow drinkers to enter ‘beer nirvana’. Now, I’m certainly partial to a drop of their ale, but I’m pretty sure that this experience was not what the Buddha had in mind 2,500 years ago when using this evocative word. So, what’s going on here?
Languages constantly evolve, for many reasons and in many ways. One of the most prominent facets of this process is the importation of words from other languages. Far from being rigidly demarcated and separate, languages are constantly ‘borrowing’ items from each other, adopting and adapting these as ‘loanwords’. Indeed, as much as 41% of the 600,000 or so words in the Oxford English Dictionary are estimated to be so borrowed1.
Given that, a fascinating question is why we borrow words. In some instances, our language already has a perfectly good label for the phenomenon in question, but a foreign word is nevertheless deployed, perhaps because it conveys a certain intellectual gloss2. In many cases, however, a word is borrowed precisely because there isn’t an adequate native equivalent. These loanwords fill a ‘semantic gap’, namely ‘the lack of a convenient word to express what [one] wants to speak about’3.
In lacking an exact equivalent, such words could be regarded as ‘untranslatable’. I have taken a great interest in such words, particularly ones pertaining to wellbeing (being a researcher in positive psychology). For they point to phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture and language. To that end, I am creating a positive lexicography, as I explore in two new books (see bio for details).
My contention is that by studying and indeed borrowing such words, the field of psychology might enrich its nomological network, thereby developing a better understanding of human beings and their potential.
In pursuit of nirvāṇa
However, this process of borrowing, transporting concepts from one cultural context to another, is far from straightforward. Consider the Sanskrit term nirvāṇa. This is surely universally recognised by English speakers – no doubt in part to the phenomenal success of the Seattle grunge band of the same name – and has been fully assimilated into the language. But to what extent have its original meanings been preserved?
The answer, it seems, is not especially (as we saw above). Or rather, although there may be superficial similarities, its usage in English usually lacks the deeper layers of context that gives the concept such resonance in traditions such as Buddhism. That is, when used in English, nirvāṇa tends to imply intense bliss – as in the case of that beer promotion – possibly with the connotation that this is enduring or even ‘everlasting’. Relatedly, it can function as a vague synonym of heaven, a blessed realm beyond the travails of earthly existence.
To an extent, these meanings are not discordant with original uses of the term. But they are denuded of the deeper context which gives the term such weight.
The significance of nirvāṇa
Traditions such as Buddhism endorse a metaphysics where existence is an endless cyclical pattern of birth, death and rebirth, known as saṃsāra. (Note though that this cycle can be interpreted according to various time-frames: from the notion of successive lives implied by theories of reincarnation, to the moment-to-moment way the self is continually brought into being.) Crucially, saṃsāra is regarded as inherently pervaded by duḥkha, a quality often translated as ‘suffering’ or ‘dissatisfaction’.
However, this unfortunate state of affairs is not inevitable. Buddhism’s central tenet is that it is possible – with the requisite training and commitment – to attain the complete and final cessation of duḥkha, and the consequent attainment of nirvāṇa, of total and lasting freedom.
Needless to say, much could be written about this process. Nevertheless, some aspects of its dynamics may be glimpsed through considering the etymology of nirvāṇa: to blow out or extinguish. This isn’t some nihilistic cataclysm whereby the person ceases to exist. Rather, extinguished are the psychological processes which engender duḥkha. Principally, this means craving and attachment – traits which render us perennially dissatisfied, anxiously looking to better our situation, even if life is pretty good.
In their place, through meditation and ethical training, one may reach the bountiful state of peace denoted by nirvāṇa. This doesn’t necessarily imply permanent bliss (although some reports do suggest that is possible). Rather, it describes a powerful and durable state of deep contentment, one not precariously dependent upon chance and circumstance, an elevated peak from which one need not necessarily descend.
As such, although as a loanword nirvāṇa has not totally lost these meanings, neither does it fully capture the significance and depth found within its original context. And this lesson is worth bearing in mind more generally as we engage with the fascination of untranslatable words.
 A.P. Grant, ‘Loanwords in British English’, in Loanwords in the World’s Languages: A Comparative Handbook, ed. M. Haspelmath and U. Tadmor (Berlin: De Gruyter Martin, 2009), 360–383.
 M. Haspelmath, ‘Lexical borrowing: concepts and issues’, in Loanwords in the World’s Languages: A Comparative Handbook, ed. M. Haspelmath and U. Tadmor (Berlin: De Gruyter Martin, 2009), 35–55.
 A. Lehrer, Semantic Fields and Lexical Structures (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1974), at 105.