5 Words That Explain the World

From France to Thailand, writers decipher how language uniquely reflects politics.

By , a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
An illustration of the French word "seum" reflected in a woman's sunglasses as her lip curls.
An illustration of the French word "seum" reflected in a woman's sunglasses as her lip curls.
Samy Halim Illustration for Foreign Policy

Sometimes, a society can tell a story through just one word. At least, that’s the idea behind Foreign Policy’s decoder feature, which uses a country-specific word or phrase as a lens into its political psyche. In France, a word derived from banlieue slang reflects just how the population feels about their choices for president. In the Philippines, a reclaimed pejorative captures the resilience of the LGBTQ community. And in Thailand, a peculiar phrase approximates the spirit of the country’s youth protesters.

Sometimes, a society can tell a story through just one word. At least, that’s the idea behind Foreign Policy’s decoder feature, which uses a country-specific word or phrase as a lens into its political psyche. In France, a word derived from banlieue slang reflects just how the population feels about their choices for president. In the Philippines, a reclaimed pejorative captures the resilience of the LGBTQ community. And in Thailand, a peculiar phrase approximates the spirit of the country’s youth protesters.

Below are five of our favorite decoders from 2022. 


1. The Malaise Poisoning French Politics

by Fleur Macdonald, April 9

France held its two-round presidential election in April, with incumbent Emmanuel Macron handily defeating far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the runoff. Ahead of the vote, journalist Fleur Macdonald tapped into the country’s societal malaise through the word seum, which at once connotes rage, disappointment, and disgust. “There is something timeless about the word, which fits neatly into French tradition,” she writes. Seum “uniquely captures the country’s current political mood: Feelings of dissatisfaction and resignation now transcend social divides.”

Macdonald predicts that with Macron’s victory—despite his perceived failings among the French electorate—seum is here to stay. “In this political atmosphere, anger isn’t confined to any segment of the population,” she writes.


2. Kòltiz, a Patriotic Haitian Practice of Solidarity

by Benjamin Hebblethwaite, April 16

A linoleum print illustrates the Haitian Creole word koltiz.
A linoleum print illustrates the Haitian Creole word koltiz.

Alexandra Antoine ILLUSTRATION for Foreign Policy

On New Year’s Day in towns across Haiti, people eat soup joumou, a pumpkin soup made with the meat of a shared slaughtered cow to celebrate the country’s independence. The cow is purchased with money collectively set aside by groups of farmers called kòltiz, professor Benjamin Hebblethwaite explains. “Kòltiz is one of several solidarity practices central to the economy of Haiti’s Creole-speaking majority,” he writes. And—“tellingly,” he adds—although parts of the word can be traced to French origin, it’s not found in a standard French dictionary.

Likewise, Haitian collaborative groups such as kòltiz reveal something about modern-day Haiti. “They show that Haitian people are strengthened by their collaborative culture, desire responsive leaders who respect them, seek a society of relative economic parity, and engage in community labor that connects to leisure as well as history,” Hebblethwaite writes.


3. The Secret to Getting What You Need in Ghana

by Anakwa Dwamena, June 11

An entitled man walks across a collage landscape to illustrate the concept of protocol in Ghana.
An entitled man walks across a collage landscape to illustrate the concept of protocol in Ghana.

Nana-Opoku (Afroscope) illustration for Foreign Policy

Ghanaians are experiencing disillusionment with another part of the political system: so-called protocol—a paradox that “often means expedited access that circumvents established procedure,” journalist Anakwa Dwamena writes. “People in Ghana do not follow protocol; they have it, through kinship or a social connection. One might use protocol to quickly access a public service, while applying for a job, or to get into a good school.” It might even allow them to skip the line to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

For Dwamena, protocol casts doubt on Ghana’s supposed meritocracy and reflects something deeper about its society. “Ghana’s protocol system has exacerbated the divide between ordinary citizens and the government that supposedly exists for their benefit,” he writes.


4. How ‘Bakla’ Explains the Struggle for Queer Identity in the Philippines

by Jaime Oscar M. Salazar, July 30

Set in front of a light green backdrop, a multicolored and multi-patterned moth designed with the symbols for male and female sex on each wing rests atop the face of a human figure with layered, chin-length hair.
Set in front of a light green backdrop, a multicolored and multi-patterned moth designed with the symbols for male and female sex on each wing rests atop the face of a human figure with layered, chin-length hair.

Ari Liloan illustration for Foreign Policy

After two cancellations due to COVID-19 lockdowns, Pride Month returned to the Philippines in 2022 with a bang. There was a common refrain, according to writer Jaime Oscar M. Salazar: “Happy Pride, mga bakla!,” using a Tagalog word variously translated as “drag queen,” “gay,” “queer,” and “third sex,” among others. Bakla “shows how in the Philippines, as in many places around the world, gender and sexuality are imagined and lived out in connection with concepts and categories that Western lenses can’t fully account for,” he writes.

Despite its pejorative past, the word is “used matter-of-factly as a self-descriptor and between bakla and their friends as a greeting or a term of endearment,” Salazar writes. These reclamations represent “efforts from people who have long been disdained for being different, for defying the norm, to make themselves felt and heard.”


5. How Thai Activists Troll the Monarchy

by Jasmine Chia, Aug. 20

An illustration of the Thai word kuan teen
An illustration of the Thai word kuan teen

TA KASITIPRADIT ILLUSTRATION FOR FOREIGN POLICY

As Thailand approaches an election year under the shadow of military rule, it’s worth revisiting the tongue-in-cheek humor that has characterized the country’s recent pro-democracy protest movement. Kuan teen—literally “causing an itch to one’s foot”—reflects the defining spirit of the country’s youth activists, commentator Jasmine Chia writes. “Kuan teen is associated with annoying or bothersome behavior, often in a way the offending party finds funny,” she writes. “The phrase is considered vulgar, but kuan teen requires wit and sophistication.”

Many protesters used creative approaches to get around Thailand’s notorious lèse-majesté laws. “Kuan teen exists in Thai politics because we are not able to communicate directly, even though we all know what we are talking about,” one activist told Chia. She concludes that this spirit could have “potential to break Thailand’s cycle of coup and crisis.”

Audrey Wilson is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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