Gnawing and trying to write it and ... here is what I wrote this morning as an intro ... and realize is too long and will have to be thrown out. Nevertheless, the memory was fun...
Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the early 1960's a fellow German linguist and I sat on the terrace of a Berlin cafe and eased through an afternoon on which we were not tasked with spying on the administration of the then-dread government of East Germany.
We sipped beer, soaked up the sun, admired women, and mentally put aside the sheets of paper that were integral to our weekday work -- the papers marked "Top Secret" (code word) at top and bottom; the ones on which we translated governmental phone calls.
"If you had to choose a single word to know in any foreign language," Bill said, "what would it be?"
This was a topic worthy of a lazy afternoon -- frivolous and yet serious, somehow. Communication had to begin somewhere, didn't it? So ... was there a Rosetta Stone of some sort, a jumping off point between those who spoke and those who listened from different perspectives? The question hung in the air and then we began throwing out possibilities.
One after another, we tried them out and then discarded them. They weren't exactly right. They weren't encompassing enough. They weren't bulls-eye enough. We were just about to give up when Bill hit the nail on a head we could agree on:
"Toilet" he said simply.
And somehow, perhaps because the beer was good, that was that. A single word. No matter that there were cultures that had no literal toilets: The function was the same with or without the porcelain.