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The Untranslatables: #5 Age-Otori


5. AGE-OTORI

Have you ever left the hairdresser’s with the distinct feeling you should start wearing a hat? Or been forced to stifle your laughter as your friend shows off her new ‘do? Well, in Japan there is (supposedly) a word for such an unfortunate moment: Age-Otori.

Broadly speaking, ‘Age-Otori’ means ‘to look worse after a haircut’. It’s a neat little term which I’m sure almost all of us could use at some point. And it certainly has no simple equivalent in English. But despite this, I hesitated to include it in my list of ‘Untranslatables’.

The problem is, ‘Age-Otori’ is surrounded by a great deal of controversy. Ok, that’s perhaps an exaggeration. It’s surrounded by a little bit of controversy: a number of slightly snooty and smug internet users claim the term doesn’t really exist.

This is often a problem with so-called ‘untranslatable’ words. Several francophone friends have told me similar things for the terms ‘feuillemort’ and ‘esprit d’escalier’, both common culprits on lists of such words.

But after a great deal of snooping, I have decided that ‘Age-Otori’ does deserve to be included in my list. Although not commonly used nowadays (except by language nerds who like to make lists of fun words from other countries), it seems the word did feature in a very old novel and was even included in an edition of the Japanese Kojien (sort of like the OED). And just because something is old, it doesn’t mean it’s non-existant! So, Age-Otori, welcome to my list of Untranslatables!

And who knows? Perhaps if enough of us start using it, we’ll get it reinserted into the OED as a loan word!

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