I love people-watching about as much as I love word-watching. I take transit to and from work every day, and at assorted other times too; it’s a great place for watching people come and go. And of course the sidewalks of downtown Toronto are a veritable museum of human form and behaviour.
An experience I often have is seeing someone from behind and wondering what the face looks like. Sometimes I get to see; sometimes I don’t. I have found that backsides do not always correlate with front sides. First impressions can indeed be misleading.
Well. Of course what you see is what you see; if someone has an appealing dorsal aspect, it is appealing regardless of their ventral aspect. Any given person is likely to have some parts that are comelier than others. Or at least more intriguing, more inviting. Some people look quite exotic from one side and quite ordinary from another; some are a mixed bag of assorted visual flavours, just as words may be. I had a friend in graduate school whose voice and speech manners were actually quite strikingly at odds with her appearance; I didn’t realize how much so this was until the first time I phoned her. She was short and lean and had short red hair and never wore makeup. Someone answered the phone who sounded like a curvy blonde party girl from California who wore heavy lip gloss. I asked to speak to Julie. “This is Julie,” the voice said, and I realized it was.
Usually the impressions of different aspects may be varied but are not necessarily strikingly contrasting in attractiveness. But sometimes they are, at least to a given person’s eyes. I don’t know whether, in English, we have a term for a guy who looks good from one angle but bad from another (we should – let me know if you know one), but we do have a term sometimes used for a woman who appears good from behind: butterface, as in “nice backside, butterface…” I am also put in mind of the song by the Monks, “Nice Legs Shame About Her Face” – in which, I must say, the narrator gets put in his place in the end.
There is a rather appealing word in Japanese for a woman who looks nice from the back but not from the front: bakkushan. The main stress, I should tell you, is on the first syllable; the second syllable is very reduced. The word thus has a sound resemblance to ricochet – or baccarat, or Yucatan. You may get a kick out of the shapes of the letters: the b like a nice bum, the kk perhaps like legs in high heels; the bakku ends in u while the shan ends in n, a sort of reversal, from thumbs-up to thumbs-down. You get a sense of the exotic from this word, with its kk, and the sh in the middle rather than at one end or another; it has nine letters and yet nary a hint of European morphology.
But appearances can be deceptive. This word is not only a loan from Japanese but, before that, a loan to Japanese – actually, two loans: bakku, from English back or perhaps German Backe “cheek” (also used in reference to the buttocks, as in English), and shan, from German schön “fine, beautiful”. Yes, that’s right, it’s a Germanic word in disguise. It looked so exotic!
But, you know, sometimes to see something as exciting and new you have to see it as – well, as something exciting and new. Several years ago I published a paper on how intercultural encounter can serve as a catalyst for us to reintegrate things of our own that we had excluded: “The Transcendent Function of Interculturalism.” It’s a bit dry, but an interesting topic.
It’s a similar thing: gazing at something exotic and interesting, only to see that the other side is not what was expected. But in this case the face turns out to be your own. And how do you like it? Does it put you in your place?