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You say tomato, I think potato

Quick quiz: What do the Slovak words hosť, Kanady and seriózny mean in English?
If you said serious, host and Canada (or Canadians) you were wrong.
Huh? you say. Čože?
That's right. Those words mean, respectively, guest, boots and responsible (actually it's more complicated than 'responsible'. Explanation to follow.)

Quick quiz: What do the Slovak words hosť, Kanady and seriózny mean in English?

If you said serious, host and Canada (or Canadians) you were wrong.

Huh? you say. Čože?

That's right. Those words mean, respectively, guest, boots and responsible (actually it's more complicated than 'responsible'. Explanation to follow.)

If you're a beginner in Slovak with little patience, you might want to stop reading this column now, since the list of Slovak words dressed in a seemingly recognisable series of letters yet concealing confounding differences in meaning or nuance is quite long and sometimes extremely frustrating.

Hosť is the most exasperating. A hosť in Slovak is a guest in English. A host in English is a hostiteľ in Slovak. The debate continues over whether the Slovaks stole this word from English and then bungled it, or whether the English got it wrong to begin with. In either case, the ancient Romans would be scratching their heads: The original Latin hostis meant enemy.

Seriózny is closer to the English, but pozor (beware): a vážny človek is a serious person (vážne is also the best adjective to describe a serious situation, work of art or meeting). A seriózny človek, on the other hand, is a responsible, sober person, with admirable aspirations and an orderly set of priorities, a person who probably wears a tie every day to work but never spills coffee on it. A seriózny človek has his act together.

Serious can pass for seriózny when the subject is business (although credible is a better translation, like a seriózny podnik - a credible firm). But when serious modifies a work of art - a serious film or book - it is referring to an unsmiling tone; a seriózna kniha would be a book that was written and printed according to top professional standards.

There is probably a reasonable explanation for the word Kanady, which means large boots worn by a soldier, having to do with the country Canada and its wild, boots-demanding terrain. Číňany were much sought after canvas sneakers during Slovakia's socialist era. They were imported - you guessed it - from China.

I must have heard the word perfektný a thousand times before I realised that it wasn't that Slovaks had a penchant for overstatement, but that theirs was a slightly different variation on the Latin perfectus, from the verb to finish. Perfektný in Slovak is a non-specific, enthusiastic expression of appreciation, in the vein of 'cool' or 'awesome', but without the teenage ring.

I used to be irritated whenever my girlfriend described a new acquaintance as perfektný. "Look," I'd say, "he's all right. But no one's perfect. Especially not that guy." Then I realised all she meant was that the person was funny, polite, witty, vivacious, had good taste in clothing or played the bassoon with feeling.

In Piešťany I once stood with a Slovak staring at a billboard consisting of shutters that, when turned from one side to the other, composed two different advertisements for the same company. "Cool," I said. "Perfektné," she said.

Sympatický causes more problems for Slovaks trying to speak English than naopak (vice-versa). A sympatický človek is a nice person, a kind person. But Slovaks translate it into English as sympathetic, which indicates some form of fellow-feeling with the other person. Nice guy/girl is what they're after, but they often can't get out of their heads what they were all seemingly taught, namely that nice means pekne (pretty, handsome) when applied to a person.

Nervózny is another Slovak word that is more general than its English cousin. To be sure, nervózny can mean nervous in the sense of jumpy in anticipation, but it also covers irritable, short-tempered, snappy, anxious, shaken, worried, troubled, distracted, discombobulated, harried or forlorn. Consider the song by Slovak rock group Vidiek: "Whoa, čo s ňou? Nervóznou Vašou famíliou..." (Whoa, what's with it? With your irritable family.)

The English pathetic, on the other hand, meaning 'inspiring a mixture of contempt and pity', has a far broader meaning than the charmingly specific patetický. Patetický applies to someone who is more sad or upset than a situation warrants, and is making a show of it. Melodramatic is a loose translation.

And finally, two office favourites, because we deal so often with long-winded representatives of political and cultural projects who love to use big, important-sounding, imported words, are realizácia and aktuálne. Realizácia, the noun denoting when a plan is put into practice, actually has the same meaning as the first Oxford English Dictionary definition of the English word realisation, although realisation in English more often describes the mental act of comprehension. Aktuálne describes something that is up to date or current. Information, software or news may be aktuálne. Two more words that can turn the simplest phone calls into Abbott and Costello routines.

Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners appreciate the difficult but beautiful Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters column will appear on stands October 15, Vol. 7, No. 39.

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