Every language has its peculiar charms. English, with more than three million terms, is beautiful in its precision, even if it remains largely a dull knife in the hands of many of its users. Slovak, in the right hands, achieves great heights in those expressions which are not to be found in any other language, at least not in the way Slovaks mean them. Here are 10 of the best.
1. Sedlák. This word, meaning roughly 'peasant' or 'hayseed', draws on Slovakia's agricultural past, but is greatly enriched by the nation's experience of having peasants moved en masse to communist cities in the 1950s to 1980s. Imagine a village dweller who has moved to a Slovak city, and is doing his best to ape what he thinks 'city living' requires. Sedláci wear suits with white socks, and slip-on shoes (known in Slovak as mokasíny). Sedláci, like Canadian hockey fans in the 1980s, favour a hairdo that is short on top and long in the back. Sedláci, particularly if they have privatised a firm in the 1990s, will never wait in traffic if they can drive down the sidewalk in their sports utility vehicles. Sedláci enjoy Euro-pop, don't read books, and pick their noses (vrtať si v nose - lit. "to bore in their noses", related to the English 'drilling for oil') in public. Every country has sedláci, but only Slovakia has come up with the perfect word to describe them.
There is a great difference, however, between the boorish sedlák and the honourable sedliak, a person who works the land and has no urban pretensions (sedliak may come from sedlo, a saddle for the horses which peasants used). Ty si sedlák is a powerful insult, while calling someone a sedliak is a statement of fact. The mass of sedláci are known as sedlač.
2. Prehadzovač. Literally, 'one who throws over', but in this case referring to older men who comb what few wisps of hair they still own across their heads to create the impression of youth (or hide their baldness). The hairdo is called a prehadzovačka.
3. Dojížďák. The finisher. We've all seen him, this bendy oldster who haunts pubs and pounces on the few inches of beer left in mugs by departing patrons. But while dojíždet is a Czech word which means to finish a journey, when you want to 'chug' or 'down' a full beer in Slovak, you must say doraziť or kopnúť ('to kick').
4. Štrngnúť. While we're on the subject of alcohol, here is an onomatopoeia for the act of clinking glasses. It is accompanied by the polite na zdravie ('to your health'), or na hada ('to the snake'), which is said on New Year's Day and expresses the wish that the massive quantity of alcohol you have consumed may neutralise the poison from any snakes that bite you during the coming year. Incidentally, regarding the act of clinking, many Slovaks will clink first the tops of each glass, then the bottoms, and then touch them on the table while looking in the eyes of their fellow clinker. Rumour has it the fad was started by electrotechnical students, working off the 'positive-negative-ground' principles of their profession.
5. Seriózny. I was called this once by an old woman whose home I had bewilderedly dined in. I thought it was a polite reference to my mute abstinence from table talk, but I discovered later that she had been approving of my apparent lack of frivolity. Now that I can speak some Slovak, I doubt she would make the same judgement. Seriózny combines character traits like reliability, sobriety and above all personal honour. Little did granny know of whom she spoke so kindly. A word greatly favoured for business partners whose conduct is responsible and beyond reproach, which is why it may be so seldom used in this country.
6. Vysvetľovať: What this column is trying to do, to explain or literally 'shine light' on the Slovak language.
7. Babrať: To bungle, a useful word for anyone who has to deal with Slovak state administration. A babrák is a bungler, a term which in both languages is a top contender for most amusing word; see also kazisvet, 'a destroyer of the world', rather like a bull in a china shop or a pig on skates.
8. Neznaboh: What grannies call little children who fart in church. It means, roughly, 'one who doesn't know God', equivalent to our 'godless', and is probably the best rendition of 'rascal' to be found in Slovak, although ničomník ('good-for-nothing'), darebák ('scoundrel'), gauner ('mountebank') and the archaic trúd and grázel are close runners-up.
9. Ušiplesk. Before I had my 'congenitally outstanding ears' pinned back by merciful doctors when I was 19, they stuck out so far beyond my fringe of long hair that I was known as 'trophy head'. Ušiplesk is the cruel Slovak equivalent, meaning one whose ears (uši) stick out so far that they clap together like hands (plieskať).
10. Sukničkár. A skirt chaser, from sukňa, a skirt. A description fitting most Slovak politicians, who often answer requests for interviews from the female members of our staff with samozrejme, moja, 'of course, my little one'.
Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping ex-pats and foreigners understand the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
Next column (on stands April 30, Vol. 7, No. 17): Five obscure Slovak sayings.
16. Apr 2001 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson