Looking through a thesis for a friend at Kagoro seminary I was stumped by one particular word: ‘cameliously’. The context? “The instrument used in this research was carefully, cameliously designed…” Are you any the wiser? I wasn’t and I consulted various dictionaries and asked friends. No-one had ever heard of the word. Various possibilities were suggested including things to do with chameleons. That seemed unlikely since the word didn’t really look like that. Finally I gave up and asked the student directly. Grinning, Ezekiel confessed he had actually made it up and intended it to be ‘like a chameleon’.
But what would ‘cameliously’ (or ‘chameleonly’) mean?
I and (mostly Western) friends had thought if it was something to do with chameleons then it must be something to do with adapting appearance for its environment, but no, the creator of the word meant it in the sense of being slow and methodical like the way a chameleon walks. Just because chameleon is associated in my mind with changing its colour doesn’t mean that’s a primary feature for others.
It’s similar to the story told by an English-speaking teacher in Germany who asked some small children how many legs an octopus has. They didn’t know. How can’t you know how many legs an octo-pus has when the name means 8-legs? Well, not if the name is actually ‘Tintenfisch’ or ‘ink fish’.
And so here’s the take-home message for translation and for working across cultures: while we’re using a common language we always have to bear in mind we might be talking at cross-purposes.
Oh, and a second one: don’t make up words for academic papers… unless you’ve slipped them into wikipedia first.