SLOVAK MATTERS

Trying in vain to be cool in Slovak

If you follow this column (and if you don't, ty ty ty jeden), you will recall that in recent weeks we've examined Slovak words that don't exist in English, and words easily confused when translating from one language to the other.
The time has come to investigate those English words that don't have satisfactory equivalents in Slovak.
The English language has roughly 900,000 words, while Slovak has roughly 700,000, according to Juraj Dolník, professor at Comenius University's Slovak language department.

If you follow this column (and if you don't, ty ty ty jeden), you will recall that in recent weeks we've examined Slovak words that don't exist in English, and words easily confused when translating from one language to the other.

The time has come to investigate those English words that don't have satisfactory equivalents in Slovak.

The English language has roughly 900,000 words, while Slovak has roughly 700,000, according to Juraj Dolník, professor at Comenius University's Slovak language department.

Unfortunately, and in spite of the appeals of readers, the editors haven't granted me enough space to treat that many.

It's all to the good, anyhow, since it's not words like fricasseed, chinook and simulacrum that I missed when learning Slovak, but low American slang, like jerk, dork and cool.

The ethos of US egalitarianism goes hand in hand with the right to make snap social judgements about anyone, anytime. It was thus discouraging to discover no Slovak vernacular for sissy, wussy or mama's boy, or on the other hand, for hard-core or tough. The best I could do was slabý and zbabelec (lit. soft and coward) and tvrdý and silný (lit. hard and strong).

The tallest stumbling block was cool, a word I use 100 times a day back home. The cool that belongs to the young, not-our-parents generation. Cool like Pulp Fiction is cool, like Frank Zappa's music is cool, like velvet pants are cool. I spent a year puzzling over what Slovak word to use when cool popped into my head, usually frowning and settling on dobrý (good).

Two weeks ago I compared cool to perfektný, a far more enthusiastic compliment than dobrý. But perfektný ultimately fails because it is used by all generations of Slovaks, and because its trisyllabic singsong is just not cool.

We foreigners are left with a choice between finding an entirely different adjective for a pair of velvet pants and Frank Zappa's CD's and Pulp Fiction, using the wanting perfektný (all of whose connotations you won't get), or sticking to the self-gratifying cool (all of whose connotations your Slovak friends won't get).

Ditto for dorky. Dorky as in not cool. Dorky like Al Gore is dorky. Trápny (problematic in its own right) meaning embarrassing, is too vague, and too strong. Goofy, like Al Gore is goofy, is also not covered.

I was happy to find the fantastic word bifloš for geek or nerd. (Geek, incidentally, literally means a carnival performer who bites the heads off live chickens. No Slovak for that definition.) Beginning with a browbeating 'B', its two, harsh syllables are ideal for terrorising anyone who would dare wear a pocket-protector to school or read a book in gym glass. Sadly, Slovak has no word for bully, but does have the menacing sounding verb šikanovať.

Two more name-calling words unavailable in Slovak are freak, like the carnival man who bites the heads off chickens, and jerk, like the guy who splashes you by deliberately driving through a mud puddle in his Range Rover. True, many Slovak words do the job for jerk, but all are unsuitable in polite company.

Šibnutý, šalený and strelený are three everyday adjectives which describe a crazy person, but none are as expressive as the English noun fruitcake. And curiously, Slovak has no word for sane, other than zdravý (healthy), and no word for insane, other than blázon (fool) or duševne chorý (lit. mentally ill).

The first time one of my limbs fell asleep in Slovakia, my friends here thought I was šalený. "Moja noha zaspala," I said (lit. my leg fell asleep), which is blbosť (nonsense) in Slovak. Slovaks say mám mravce v nohe (lit. I have ants in my leg), which may not be blbosť, but strikes me as fruity.

The problems continue. A funny person in English is someone who makes you laugh. It is usually a compliment. In Slovak funny, smiesný, is slightly derogatory, as if the person is the butt of the humour, is slightly ridiculous, like when my baseball coach used to call me a clown. Not the harshest insult, but no compliment either.

Vtipný, meaning witty or humorous, is a better substitute. Srandovný (lit. fun) falls in between fun and funny, if I understand all this correctly, which I may not.

If there's one thing I've learned in the last two years, it's to forget my English vocabulary and accept what Slovak offers.

Try to think in Slovak. And ask a lot of questions. It's not a perfect solution, but it's better than losing sleep over those 200,000 words you'll never find.

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