Have you ever stubbed your toe or banged your head or spilled halušky on your pants in polite Slovak company - and groped for the right expression to vent your feelings? Those exotic swear words expats learn before they can count in Slovak won't do when ladies or real adults are close by.
But boorishness is easy to avoid: The Slovak preposition do ('to', pronounced doh) that introduces so many of the language's curses may also precede universally acceptable exclamations. So, if the do has already slipped out, all is not lost, since it's always OK to say do kelu! ('to the kale') do frasa! ('to the devil') or do paže! ('to the arm').
English is easier - most swearwords used in locker rooms eventually turn up around staff-room water coolers and even at family picnics. Not so in Slovak. The careless curser (neopatrný nadávač) will offend co-workers, neighbours, and worse yet his partner's parents. He will be branded the odious neslušný (impolite), and find his off-colour comments giving birth to awkward silences.
The following is a guide to some of those Slovak words that may be used anytime and anywhere for those heated situations where other exclamations spring to mind. Each word or phrase has been deemed suitable by the exceedingly slušná (polite) Slovak mother of one of our reporters.
Slovak swearing encompassing the word do discussed above may also be employed to tell an enemy or annoyance where to go, literally, as in choď do Ríma ('go to Rome') or choď do Prčíc ('go to Prčice', a Czech village with an unfortunate reputation) or choď do čerta ('go to the devil'). To spice these up, add páľ, the imperative form of 'burn', which also means to leave or go very quickly, as in (unlikely as it sounds in English) 'I've had enough of you, burn to the kale' (už som ťa mal dosť, páľ do kelu).
In fact, there seem to be endless methods in Slovak for asking a person, so to speak, to make like a bread truck and haul buns, from the straightforward 'get out' (vypadni) or 'disappear' (zmizni or mizaj), to the instructive 'go find yourself an exit' (daj si odchod), to the unlikely 'swim away' (odpláv) and the curious 'go find yourself a parachute' (daj si padáka).
If your nuisance is still hanging around, and especially if he says something snot-nosed, threaten him. Say vytnem ti or dám ti facku (both mean 'I'll smack you'), and if that doesn't work, zabijem ťa ('I'll kill you'), which is fightin' words among strangers but a joke among friends (zabijem ťa is the lone phrase on this list which fails our 'mother test').
So far we've told our enemies where to go and what will happen if they don't go there; perhaps a direct insult (urážka) is in order. Try ty pako or the euphonious tongue-twister ty chmuľo (both mean something like 'you moron'). Ty sviňa ('you swine') is harsher, akin to 'you jerk'.
Unless you are surrounded continuously by pako and chmuľo, you will be happy to know Slovak also provides in spades for those times that a friend or colleague delivers a pleasant surprise. The most popular of these, in Bratislava anyway, is kokso, which doesn't literally mean anything, but when someone walks into work and says he's won 100,000 crowns playing bingo at Mamut and wants to buy you lunch, you say ty kokso. Ty vole ('you ox') and ty koňo ('you horse') would also suffice.
Careful readers of this column will have noted Slovaks once again employing farm animals in the service of language. (For those who missed it, several months ago we wrote that Slovak permits you to tell your sweetheart ľubím ťa ako koňa, or 'I love you like a horse'). My personal favourite exclamation also comes from the barnyard (gazdostvo). Rolling off the tongue and appropriate for all occasions, it is kurnik šopa! ('chickencoop hayloft!'). Try it next time you stub your toe, bang your head, or spill halušky on your tie.
Chickencoop hayloft! That reminds me of a story illuminating the folly of direct translation. First you need to know that ty ty ty jeden (lit. 'you, you, you one') is the gentle way Slovak parents inform their children that they are not behaving properly, a sort of 'now, now', 'no, no', and 'bad boy/bad girl' wrapped into one.
Once, on a long flight from Prague to the US, an English-speaking man drank too much and grew loud, fussy, and generally disagreeable. When the stewardesses brought food, he sent it back, claiming it was cold. When the person next to him fell asleep and snored, he shook him awake and when it happened again, demanded a new seat. Finally, he was refused further alcohol. He didn't go quietly, yelling obscenities after the stewardess who denied him service and flinging honey-roasted peanuts at her as she moved down the aisle. Enough is enough, an on-looking steward thought to himself. He marched over to the man, determined to shame him in front of the other passengers, to treat him like the small child he was being. He wagged his index finger in the drunken man's face and said: 'you, you, you one'. Not dreaming, of course, that he had just conceded victory.
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 30, Vol. 7, No. 29.
6. Jul 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds