DURING a recent weekend I spent in a south-central Slovak town, I asked people for words and phrases they believed had come into the Slovak language since 1993 independence. It's a good conversation gambit, appealing to Slovaks' pride in their language, as well as giving them a vent for their feelings about a decade of change.
Balík ekonomických opatrení (package of economic measures) was the choice of one man who in the last four years has seen announced two larger balíky and several partial ones.
"What the hell does that mean?" he asked. "Why don't they just admit they're raising prices and cutting benefits?"
"It's hmla [fog]," said his companion, arguing that the language had been hijacked by people whose goal was to obfuscate rather than elucidate. "We've got sociálny balík [social package], reformné opatrenie [reform steps], and my favourite, zefektívnenie štátnej správy [improving the efficiency of the state administration]."
Unenlightening and mendacious, these phrases rile many Slovaks because they go against the national character, which favours direct, bald speech.
The language of independence, for example, celebrates the massive theft of public property that occurred over the last decade with new words like tunelovanie (tunnelling, i.e. asset stripping), rodinkárstvo (nepotism), klientelizmus (clientelism, cronyism) and korupcia (corruption). While the words themselves may not be new, their presence in everyday speech certainly is.
These words have a blood relationship to mečiarizmus (mečiarism), the form of politics practised by former PM Vladimír Mečiar, characterised by lying, the provoking of senseless conflicts, and above all hmla. Mečiar's nickname, Veľký Mufti (copying his initials, V.M., and meaning the Grand Mufti, or highest-ranked Islamic judge), was another novelty of the 1990s, along with Mufti's supporters, babky demokratky (grannies/democrats). And let's not forget Lenon, another Mečiar nickname, from the phrase len on to dokáže (only he can do it).
Mečiarizmus was also linked to other 'isms', such as nacionalizmus (nationalism), a force unknown under communism and which produced expressions such as za Dunaj (beyond the Danube, i.e. the Hungarians), and dlhý bič, malý dvor (a long whip and a small courtyard, the treatment proposed for Slovak Roma by nationalist Ján Slota). Foreigners may recall the admonishment Na Slovensku, po Slovensky (in Slovakia speak Slovak).
It was nationalism that in the end gave rise to some of the most memorable speeches and slogans during the 1990s. After Slota's call, during a speech apparently delivered while drunk, for Slovaks to go "do tankoch" (to the tanks) and flatten Budapest, the Hungarians began coming up with jokes such as "Slováci sú ožraté opice, ktoré Maďari hodili cez Dunaj" (Slovaks are drunk monkeys that the Hungarians flung back over the Danube).
Politics was perhaps the second-most fertile source of language comedy, with Mečiar ostensibly departing from politics after his election defeat in September 1998 by weeping on national television and singing a farewell song: "S pánom Bohom idem od Vás, neublížil som, žiadnemu z Vás" (I depart from you with God, I never hurt any of you).
But perhaps even better was a song named Vivat Slovakia, which political image-maker Fedor Flašík insisted the incoming 1994 Mečiar government sing.
Here are the words:
Vivat Slovakia, máš takú mladú tvár
Vivat Slovakia, už nikdy žiaden svár
Vivat Slovakia, už nadišiel ten čas
Vivat Slovakia, v láske môžeš rásť.
Long live Slovakia, you have such a young face
Long live Slovakia, no more disputes
Long live Slovakia, the time has finally arrived
Long live Slovakia, you can grow in love.
While the Mečiar cabinet was singing, however, the rest of the country was learning new lyrics such as výpalníctvo (from vypáliť, to burn, meaning extortion) and hlavohruď (lit. headchest, emphasizing the lack of neck, meaning a hired thug). Where kids were involved and drugs were available, we had zhulený (stoned, from huliť, a slang expression for smoking) and natripovaný (tripping).
As the nation's leadership passed from Mufti to Mikimaus (PM Mikuláš Dzurinda), other, more Western-inspired, words crept in. There was the new word negociovať (negotiate) to cover what the country was doing with the EU and Nato, Rómovia to replace the familiar cigáň (gypsy), which had been sadly battered by political correctness, and transparentnosť (transparency), which was meant to eliminate korupcia but ended up in the hmla category.
And then, against all odds, Slovakia's victory at the World Hockey Championships in May 2002 prompted another phrase to be dusted off: Majstri Sveta (World Champions), which as incongruous as it may seem among the hlavohruď and rodinkárstvo, nevertheless deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of independence speak.