Compound words are fun. German is best known for doing this — stringing words and word parts, known as lexemes, together to create a single monstrosity of a word for something that usually doesn’t need a dedicated word to begin with — but a handful of other languages do it too. As a result, those languages tend to include some hyper-specific words, which are amusing for one of two reasons: either it’s a very long word for something mundane and uninteresting, like the German Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung meaning “motor car liability insurance”, or it’s a completely impractical word for a completely impractical thing that seems to exist just because it can. Juoksentelisinkohan, a gem of the Finnish language, seems almost self-aware in this respect, as if acknowledging its own aimlessness. Granted, you probably won’t hear the phrase “motor car liability insurance” in the course of a typical day, but it’s at least more likely than hearing someone contemplate running around aimlessly . Even more baffling is that the lexeme for “run” can be replaced with theoretically any verb while leaving the rest of the word intact — you can wonder about doing anything aimlessly in Finnish, in other words — yet despite all odds, this is the form that has gained enough notoriety to capture the attention of logophiles worldwide. Perhaps it’s just the right amount of ridiculous, or perhaps it’s strangely relatable — or perhaps there’s just something charming and simplistic about the thought of running around aimlessly.
I spent an extended weekend with a six-year-old. It’s always interesting to spend that amount of time with a young child, as you observe and try to decipher how their still-developing brain is making sense of the world. So much is still strange and new to them, and they often come up with very entertaining ways to deal with it all. It makes you hearken back to what it was like to be a little kid yourself, and when you look at it from that perspective, it’s not so hard to understand the way they think anymore. At that age, children don’t think of the world as overwhelming or complicated because they have no reason to believe that it is. They simply don’t know enough about it — and they don’t need to. All that matters to them is that it’s their oyster to play and run around in, with boundless energy, their own rules, and no fear of judgment. When viewed through the lens of adulthood, the life of a child seems to consist almost entirely of running around aimlessly. Their concerns seem of such little importance to us, so minor. But to them, the little things are actually the biggest in the world. All their running around has very clear intent; their playing is the most serious thing they do. And as an adult, it’s hard not to be a little jealous of that.
Part of the reason why I imagine this word is so popular is that the idea of an adult running around aimlessly — or wondering about it — is a pretty silly mental image. But I’m sure we all have times when it still seems like an appealing option: to get up and just do something aimless, in order to dispel boredom, to kill time, or purely for the fun of it. The difference between us and children is that children don’t need a reason. They don’t stop to wonder whether they should run around aimlessly; they just do it. They haven’t yet learned to doubt, and while that philosophy sometimes comes with its own repercussions, it holds something worth learning from as well. Maybe, every now and again, we should stop taking things so seriously and enjoy the aimless intensity of childhood again. Maybe juoksentelisinkohan is all about encouraging us to return to a simpler time that’s been lost in the rush.
Or maybe it’s just a funny word that demonstrates what you can do with Finnish grammar. It’s up to interpretation.