Those familiar with our history of "No word for X" posts will appreciate Haider Ala Hamoudi's essay "The Dangers of Pop Linguistics: Arab Bluffs and Arab Compromise", posted at Islamic Law in Our Times, 3/6/2012. Some useful background is provided by Geoff Nunberg's Fresh Air commentary "Meetings of the minds", 5/29/2003, which discusses the original claim that Arabic has no word for compromise. Prof. Hamoudi muses:
I wouldn't spend time on something so silly except in reading the Arabic papers today I saw a rather striking set of translations of Barack Obama's interview in the Atlantic monthly with I think Jeffrey Goldberg, the substance of which I had already read in English. But Obama says in it something to the effect of "as President, I don't bluff" and in Arabic media reports I read and heard, two verbs were used. One was خدع which means to deceive, and one was مزح which means to joke around. So "I'm not deceiving you" or "I'm not joking."
Yet of course as with "compromise" neither is perfect, and as I thought about it, I cannot think of an Arabic equivalent to "bluff" that works particularly well. To bluster and threaten, that is, without much of an intent or an ability (only need one or the other) to carry forward on the threat. So, we don't have compromise so we cannot compromise the theory goes, but then again we don't have "bluff" either, so do we not bluff?
The Arabs by now should be smiling, because all we do is bluff. Saddam bluffed about his rivers of blood and chemical weapons, Qaddafi about his ability to bring forward tens of thousands of soldiers to repel the Libyan rebels, Syria about its strength now. Get into a car accident in Iraq, chances are someone will threaten to shoot you at some point, hardly something to get very excited about on its own. Try to buy a carpet, you'll be told it'll be gone in an hour to the next buyer if you don't act now. We're the bluffers, nobody bluffs more than us, though it's not hard to bluff better since at times we're bluffing about something that could not possibly be the case (the Ba'ath insisting it was repelling the US when there were sightings of tanks all around Baghdad).
But we have no word for it.
[Tip of the hat to Ted McClure]