Homonym for Christmas and New Year

A lesson in Vietnamese and Khmer homonyms

A lesson in Vietnamese and Khmer homonyms

Reflect. Reminisce. Recollect. Recall.

I simply cannot help but participate in the act of these prefixed re- words during this time of the year. (Do “reflect” and “reminisce” count as prefixed re- words? Can one “flect” and  “minisce” in English? Well, if one cannot, then I say, one should be at liberty to do so.)

There is reason to this annual habit of mine – it is the season of remembrance, when you will find creatures, like myself, suspended in liminal brain fog:

  • hanging on a hinge;
  • perching on a precipice;
  • taking on the threshold; and
  • developing the habit of turning ‘13s into ‘12s, although I will more than likely continue to write ‘12s instead of ‘13s well into February or March.

I remember.

I am not just pointing this word out because my research is solely about memory, or because I am a historian chronically preoccupied with the past. (Neither are true.) Rather, I point it out because “remember” is a word in Vietnamese and Khmer to which I have taken a fancy. In both languages, “remember” is a homonym – a word with multiple meanings, but with the same spelling and pronunciation for all definitions.

In Vietnamese, the language of my father’s family, nhớ means, “to remember,” but it also means, “to miss”:

Tôi nhớ bạn.
I remember my friend (as in the friend appears in my mental past).

Tôi nhớ bạn.
I miss my friend (as in I am in lack of the friend in my current present).

In Khmer, the language of my mother’s family, tchaam means, “to remember,” but it also means, “to wait”:

Keeyom tchaam puht mak.
I remember my friend (like Vietnamese, as in the friend appears in my mental past).

Keeyom tchaam puht mak.
I wait for my friend (as in I anticipate the friend in my coming future).

(Many thanks to the waitress at The Shop for answering my questions about tchaam and writing it down for me.)

Working with memory and being a historian – that is, practicing the act of remembrance – involves crossing spaces in time with trepidation, much like distinguishing the delicacies of these definitions in Vietnamese and Khmer. So, it’s like it’s Christmas and New Year’s all year round in my head! Well, except the red-green-white-silver-blue color palette tends to display more prominently during the months of December and January.

What I am saying is that in my work, I remember and miss, and remember and wait. But today, on the eve of the eve of Christmas, and eight days and some hours from 2013, from a location where I am thousands of miles away from family and friends, and am consequently reflecting, reminiscing, recollecting, and recalling (exponentially more than usual), I remember and miss, and remember and wait, for things and people that don’t have much to do with my work.

Kitchens, Babies growing up, Ovens, Physical human contact, Quiet streets, Hearing my mother’s cackling laughter in the distance, Wide open spaces, Doing nothing with my family and being totally at ease with that, Temperate climates, Seeing my dad passed out in a Sunday afternoon nap

Research epiphanies, Seeing my sister’s new kitty (if it’s still around next summer), Summer, Reunions, Physical human contact, Hot running water, Babies being born, Steadfast company and companionship, Knowing what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be located and what type of person I’ll be when this project ends


Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.
A.A. Milne

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’s. Peace and love and let the homonyms reign.

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