"No word for X" meets snowcloning

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[This is a guest post by Scott de Brestian]

I am an avid Language Log reader, and so am familiar with two ongoing series that your blog has – first, the posts debunking the “Eskimos (or people X) have unusually many words for snow” myth (which I believe drew me to your blog in the first place), and another series, on the “Language has no word for (concept)”. So I was excited when I found a quote that seems to unite these two genres, but with a twist.

The quote is said to come from Allan R. Becker’s Problems in Desert Warfare (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Combat Development Command, 1990), page 4 (I have not verified with the original source*):

[*VHM:  The report, no. 82-0205, is available online here.  The quote, as given below (sans ellipsis), is on pp. 3-4.]

Inhabitants of temperate zones do not appreciate the importance of water to everyday life as do the inhabitants of equatorial deserts. For example, there is no one word in the English language that means ‘to die of thirst,’ yet in Arabic there are eight degrees of thirst […] Arabs express thirst in terms of simple thirst, burning thirst, vehement thirst, burning thirst with dizziness, and lastly excessive thirst – the thirst that kills.

I would be very interested to see what your correspondents make of this passage, especially those versed in Arabic.


  1. JScarry said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 1:44 pm

    The premise of the statement is wrong. Just off the top of my head I can think of three degrees of thirst: thirsty, parched, and dehydrated. Probably more if you start looking at colloquialisms.

  2. Clara said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 1:55 pm

    Don't forget 'dry', in the sense of 'lacking specifically alcoholic beverages.'

  3. Doctor Science said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 1:56 pm

    I note immediately that Arabic is not associated with "equatorial deserts" (which are found only on the Pacific side of South America), but of the subtropical arid region. I bet it got messed up in editing via false synonyms: in this world climate map the Arabian Peninnsula is in the "Tropical Zone", distinct from the "Equatorial Zone" , while in e.g. this one the equatorial regions are called "Tropical" and Arabia is "Subtropical".

  4. Doctor Science said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 1:58 pm

    Bother, can't edit my comment. The second image is here.

  5. Y said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 2:35 pm

    Arabic, with all its written history, is a huge language. It may have eight words (of whatever register) for anything.

  6. CuConnacht said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 4:19 pm

    It strikes me that he says, correctly, that in English there is no single word meaning "to die of thirst", but then does not claim that there is a single Arabic word that means that.

  7. raempftl said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 4:34 pm

    German has a word for "die of thirst". It's "verdursten".


    German has lots of words for dying by a particular method. You could probably construct some witty observation about Germans from this.

    But the borring reason is that German grammar allows for such verbs to exist and therefor they exist. Usually you take the verb indicating a method by which people might die and than stick er- (which indicates finality) in front of it.

    erschießen, ertrinken, erhängen, erfrieren, ersticken etc.

  8. David L said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 5:44 pm

    Well, you can say "I'm dying for a drink,' but I guess the connotation is somewhat different.

  9. AG said,

    November 20, 2020 @ 10:29 pm

    So we can conclude that England permanently ran out of edible food some time in the 1500s, before which "starve" just meant "die".

  10. Anthea Fleming said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 1:47 am

    In Australian English, the verb 'perish' means to die of heat, thirst and exhaustion. But you can also 'perish' in a snow-storm, from cold and exhaustion. The heat sense is I think the commoner one.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 7:31 am

    In British English (sub-standard), "perishing" can be used as an intensifier — "it's perishing cold (or hot) in here".

  12. cervantes said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 7:52 am

    In English there are a couple of common words for specific means of death — suffocate, drown — but for most possible ways of dying there isn't a single word, including the most common ones. (Heart disease, cancer, pneumonia.) "Exsanguinate" is a technical term but in vernacular we would say bleed to death. I don't think that particularly means anything, frankly.

  13. Mark P said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 8:34 am

    AG, I assume the English “starve” came from the same root as the German “sterben” which means “to die.”

  14. Cervantes said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 8:56 am

    Maybe so, but nowadays you can starve without dying. You have to specify "starve to death," otherwise you're just very hungry.

  15. PeterL said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 1:32 pm

    Japanese seems to only have "(my) throat is dry". 喉が渇く(nodo ga kawaku), although the kanji for "to be dry" seems to mean both "dry" and "thirsty" https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%B8%87 – the more common kanji for "dry" is https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E4%B9%BE

  16. BobW said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 9:55 pm

    Anthea, Phillip – Working with an expatriate Brit I learned that old rubber parts that had dried out and cracked had "perished."

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    November 22, 2020 @ 5:02 am

    Yes, I'd forgotten that usage, Bob, probably because I experience rubber items perishing less frequently these days, but in my early days as a cyclist both inner tubes and tyres were prone to perishing if neglected.

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 7:35 pm

    There is no doubt 'starve' is cognate to sterben and descends from an original Germanic root for death. I do still believe it carries a default implication of death to say that a person 'starved' without qualification, but non-lethal use of 'starve' is certainly common, and may have started because of the coinage 'starvation', which does not mean 'deaths by starving'.

    Perhaps it's more surprising that other Germanic languages don't have 'die' given the universal preservation of 'dead' and 'death', which must be related.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  19. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 24, 2020 @ 1:27 am

    @Andrew Usher:

    The Scandinavian languages have Sw. , Danish and Norwegisan , Icelandic deyja for "die", so it's presumably simply a case of the verb having been lost in German (and I assume Dutch).

    English on its end lacks the causative, as in Sw. döda, German töten, etc for "kill".

  20. Robert Coren said,

    November 24, 2020 @ 10:52 am

    @Andrew Usher: "non-lethal use of 'starve' is certainly common" – In particular, as an exaggeration for effect, now turned into commonplace usage. If I say "I'm starving" or "I'm dying of thirst", I'm unlikely to mean either of those things literally.

  21. Robert L Greene said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 8:42 am

    My small English-Arabic dictionary at home gives just two translations for "thirst". But there are at least three reasons Arabic might have a ton of words for anything.

    1) mentioned above, in its 1500-plus-year written history it'll have a lot of words for anything, a real pain for learners.

    2) in its many surviving dialects, practically different languages, all called "Arabic" loosely, will have proliferated those further

    3) the Arabic verb system takes just about any basic triliteral root and makes a maximum of 10 (though usually fewer) verbs out of it. These usually have different functions: intransitive, transitive, causative, reciprocal, etc. Here's Wiktionary on the thirst words you can get out of just one root, ع ط ش or 3-t-sh (the 3 is the voiced pharyngeal fricative).


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