Not many people who were around Bratislava in the fall of 1997 will ever forget the shooting of Košice mob boss Róbert Holub. Wounded in a murder attempt at the Hotel Danube September 24, he was shot dead two weeks later in his hospital bed by an assassin who had used an aluminum ladder to climb on the roof of Bratislava's Kramare hospital. The killer fired 24 bullets from a machine gun at point-blank range.
Somehow, though, the grisly story loses some of its criminal glow when you find out the dead man's name translates into English as 'Bob Pigeon'. Or Bob Dove. Whichever sounds tougher.
Or take the Bratislava underworld figure shot just four months before Holub - Miroslav Sýkora. His name meant 'Miro Titmouse'.
It's no wonder, given their unimposing real names, that Slovak mafia guys are so found of nicknames (prezývky). The man who shot Bob Pigeon was nicknamed (prezývaný) 'Whisky'. The fellow who allegedly profited from the underworld shuffle sparked by the departures of the Pigeon and the Titmouse called himself 'Gorila'.
Not all of them get it right, of course - Peter Steinhubel, who called himself Žaluď (meaning acorn, but really equivalent to the frankly vulgar English term 'dick-head'), was gunned down in 1999 outside his frozen food business. Perhaps a tougher sobriquet might have saved him.
Most Slovaks, however, simply live with the names they were given. We have several entries for Tupý and Tupa in the phone book (dense, dull-witted) nestled alongside all the Mudry (clever) listings; dozens of Smutný's (sad) to correct the giddy impression given by the Štastny (happy, lucky) brothers of NHL fame.
We have people giving away no personal traits (the hundreds with the surname Slovák), while others reveal perhaps more than we want to know (tens of men named Sodoma, or women called Sodomová). Incidentally, Slovak society is patrilineal, with the women taking their husband's name and usually adding 'ová' on the end to signify their sex. Occasionally, when the family name ends in 'ý', such as Drobný (petty, trifling, trivial), the female surname is written with an 'a' on the end instead.
Slovak surnames also have no way of indicating one's parentage - no equivalents of Johnson or MacMurray or Ragnarsdottir. What you do find, as in English, are names signifying the profession people's ancestors might have followed. For example, Debnár, like the English Cooper, was a maker of barrels; Stolár or Stolarík was a Carpenter; a Kamenár worked with stone (Mason); Kuchár was a Cook, while Kolesár or Kollár was a maker of wheels (Wheelwright, Wheeler or Cartwright). Kováč, one of the most common Slovak names, was really a blacksmith, but does service much as the common English handle Smith.
The differences in English and Slovak surnames also provoke thought. Curiously, the Slovak name Pivárnik (a pub owner) has only one entry in the Bratislava phone book, while Pivár (a maker or lover of beer) isn't to be found at all; does the wealth of English Brewers thus mean Anglo Saxons have a deeper feeling for the amber nectar? And where are the Slovak Vintners, the illustrious makers of wine (it would be Vinár, if the name existed)? At least we find three makers of hard liquor (Palenkár), while I've never met anyone in the West named Distiller.
The English Fletcher, a maker or seller of arrows, has no equivalent in Slovak; on the other hand, the Slovak Mečiar, a maker of swords, has only an English approximate in Cutler, a maker of knives. Do these comparisons reflect the different military traditions and weaponry of the two cultures?
And then there's politics. Three-time Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, the forger of swords, leads a party of lesser lights such as Augustín Marián Huska (little goose), Ivan Gašparovíč (gašparko in Slovak is Punch, the chief character in an Italian puppet show, or a short stout person of comical appearance) and Dušan Slobodník (an army rank equivalent to lance corporal).
The names of ruling coalition politicians, on the other hand, perhaps give insight as to why Mečiar has proven so difficult to overcome as a political force. The Privatisation Ministry is run by Mária Machová ('Mary Moss'); the Foreign Ministry by Eduard Kukan (kukať in Slovak means to peer or peep). Parliament teems with people named after animals (Peter Zajac, or Peter Rabbit) and food (Ján Langoš, after a type of deep-fried pancake).
Even our illustrious head of state (President Rudolf Schuster, or Rudy Shoemaker), following in the footsteps of Michal Kováč (Mike Smith), betrays through his name a workaday approach to high politics, which is perhaps why the nuances of foreign and domestic policy so often seem to escape him.
Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners appreciate the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters column will appear on stands July 9, Vol. 7, No. 27.