A couple of years ago, Geoff Pullum put it this way:
Long-time Language Log readers will recall that we have often said here before that whenever someone says that the X people have no word for Y in their language you should put your hand on your wallet — to make sure it's still there. The people who witter on about who has a word for what hardly ever even know the languages they are talking about, and in the vast majority of cases (check out some of the cases on this list) their claim is false.
Yesterday, Tom Scocca was even more acerbic:
Whenever you hear someone explain that a concept is so foreign to this or that culture that people cannot even use their language to describe it, it is safe to assume your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of Bullshit.
Tom was talking about David Brooks' recent column on "The Learning Virtues", which claimed that "American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary." As Tom notes,
There are multiple dictionary entries for "nerd" in Chinese, including terms for a dull and tasteless person (乏味的人, fáwèi de rén) and for someone excessively enthusiastic about computers (电脑迷, diànnǎomí).
The word for "nerd" in the sense Brooks means—"pedant" or "bookworm"—is "书呆子" (shūdāizi). If you're too shiftlessly American to have an English-Chinese dictionary handy, you can literally type "nerd" into Google Translate and find it.
I've already linked to a longer list of word-for-X debunking than any rational person would want to read, and I'm not in a position to evaluate the linguistic and cultural congruence of Chinese and English words for nerd-like states and actions, beyond repeating Geoff Pullum's advice to watch out for your conceptual wallet. So let me pick up on Tom's observation that "it wouldn't be a David Brooks column if he didn't try to reduce those complexities to a glib and shaky factoid".
In my opinion, David Brooks has an unparalleled ability to shape an intellectually interesting idea into the rhetorical arc of an 800-word op-ed piece. The trouble is, a central part of his genius is choosing the little factoids that perfectly illustrate his points. No doubt he's happy enough to use a true fact if the right one comes to hand, but whenever I've checked, the details have turned out to be somewhere between mischaracterized and invented.
The emblematic case remains Brooks' claim that it was impossible to spend $20 on dinner in Franklin County, PA, dissected in a Philadelphia Magazine article that Tom Scocca linked to ("Boo-Boos in Paradise", April 2004). Some examples from previous LL posts: