Monday 25 January 2010


The Yaghan people of Tierra Del Fuego have a terribly useful word: mamihlapinatapai. Mamihlapinatapai means Two people looking at each other each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do, or to be utterly literal about it you could call it ending up mutually at a loss as to what to do about each other.

At first glance it may seem surprising that the Yaghans should develop such a complex word when they didn't even think of wearing clothes until Europeans turned up and showed them how. However, these two facets are almost certainly related as the Yaghans used to keep warm by smearing themselves in animal fat and cuddling, which if you think about it is a system that's going to produce an awful lot of mamihlapinatapai.

One gets a fair amount of mamihlapinatapai on British public transport. When a tube train has been stopped in a tunnel for more than ten minutes the imprisoned passengers are suddenly seized with a desire to talk to each other in order to complain. But nobody ever does because nobody talks on British public transport except for drunks and foreigners.

Mamihlapinatapai is also an essential preliminary to kissing, bar brawls and combinations of the two.

Delayed commuters on the Northern Line avoiding conversation


  1. I'm skeptical... I can't find any convincing evidence. I found this Languagehat post where jess tauber says the word simply means 'be at a loss which way to go' and nothing else. Make of that what you will.

  2. Goofy, I'm a hell of a lot more than skeptical. In fact I'd eat my own genitalia if I thought there was the faintest chance that this word had ever been used on the southern tundra. However, neither Inky Fool nor life are ever concerned with what is true, but always with what should be true, which is far more important.

  3. The earliest reference with Dogberry's definition I can think of: Prisoner's Dilemma by William Poundstone, Doubleday, early nineties, somewhere in the middle- don't have it in front of me right now since I generally don't keep science books in my library, except for a few early philosophical, medical tomes with mildly erotic engravings.

    Everet L.

  4. Only mildly? How dilute, Everet, how dilute.

  5. What I mean speaking for myself is that sometimes the draughtmanship is so superb and roccoco you hardly notice that the situation is really disturbing, its just seems kind of mildly erotic.