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SLOVAK MATTERS

Most un-English: Three Slovak word-concepts

I met Eva a few summers ago after a two-month absence. I had stayed with her family when I came to Slovakia the previous fall. How was her mom? I wanted to know. Her brother? Her little sausage dog?
"Well," she said. "My brother's unhappy you haven't called."
"Oh," I said, searching for an excuse. "I've been busy. You know, new job."

I met Eva a few summers ago after a two-month absence. I had stayed with her family when I came to Slovakia the previous fall. How was her mom? I wanted to know. Her brother? Her little sausage dog?

"Well," she said. "My brother's unhappy you haven't called."

"Oh," I said, searching for an excuse. "I've been busy. You know, new job."

"It's okay," she said. "He's not angry. He's just ješitný."

"Ješitný?" I said.

"Yeah," she said. "I think it means 'fussy' in English."

I pictured her brother folding his socks and underwear before going to sleep in a nightcap. I didn't think fussy was quite what she meant, but I added ješitný to my Slovak vocabulary anyway because I liked the sound of it. I used it to mean sensitive, ornery, or unhappy with Matthew J. Reynolds in any way for no good reason.

Two years of trial and error later, I think I've zeroed in on the correct meaning. Ješitný is an adjective I could hardly do without now that I understand it, but one which has no commonplace equivalent in English. I define it as prone to taking offence because of overweening pride.

Others define ješitný simply as easily offended, but that robs the word of its true brilliance, which is that the person in question is not likely to be offended because of anything I have done, but because of a flaw in his own character. Ješitný is especially useful in describing people who are touchy because of deep-seated feelings of inferiority or incompetence. The ješitný prime minister, the ješitný doorman.

I have discovered more concept-words used regularly in Slovak with no English equivalents. Last summer I was biking with a friend to Čunovo Lake outside Bratislava. Her shoelace got caught in the peddles. She fell, I laughed.

"You are škodoradostný," she said.

"I'm what?"

"I don't know how to say it in English," she said. "It's a person who laughs when something bad happens to someone else."

"A jerk?" I asked.

It turns out škodoradostný, from the words škoda (pity) and radosť (joy), describes exactly what she had said, a person who takes pleasure in the misfortune of others.

(The office wordsmith has just peaked over my shoulder and informed me that 'schadenfreude' is the English-language's borrowed equivalent for škodoradosť. But that's news to me, and probably to most native English speakers. The word is stolen from German, and somehow pronouncing an American friend's cynical glee schadenfreude wouldn't be the same fun as calling a merciless Slovak kamarát škodoradostný.)

Speaking of fun, or not having fun, I was at a party about a year ago, feeling tired, not interested in drinking; I was flipping through the hostess's book collection.

"Don't be trápny," she said.

"What's that?" I said.

"It's when you are reading books in the corner when you are supposed to be enjoying a party," she said.

Trápny is the adjective form of trapas, which in the broadest sense means embarrassment. Trápny may describe a person who is somehow embarrassing him or herself, often without knowing it. The cause of the embarrassment or the embarrassing situation can also be trápne.

The beauty of the word is its elasticity. Trápny covers everything from fashion gaffes to offences against decorum to heartbreakingly sincere amateurism in the arts.

In Slovakia it's trápne, for example, to wear white socks with long pants. At a Tchaikovsky performance last year in the Slovak Philharmonic building in Bratislava a mobile phone rang seven time before a woman turning a cartoonish shade of red located it and shut it off. Trápne. Last week I saw a stand-up comedian dying on TV. Boos would have been better than the silence. Trápne.

(For trápny our wordsmith has come up with 'gauche', from the French word for left, also news to me. Gauche, sayeth the Oxford Dictionary, is "unsophisticated and socially awkward". He's still working on ješitný, although he claims morbidly sensitive is a pretty good equivalent).

There are many more things I want to write about in this column, how back in the US these wonderful Slovak words surface in my thoughts, how I realise now that the quality I disliked most in an old university enemy was ješitnosť, but I've run out of space. And that's škoda, without the radosť.

Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column to help expats and foreigners understand the beautiful and complex Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters column will appear on stands October 1, Vol. 7, No. 37.

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