Thursday, February 19, 2009

International Word Fest

Yes, that is the cutest whisk in the universe.

There is no way to say this without it oozing geekiness, so I won’t even try to clean it up: I love words. I love finding new-to-me ones (ninebark), rediscovering dusty old ones (groovy) and shoving them back into circulation, and wearing out the ones I’ve loved since forever (fabulous). And this being North America and me being a native English speaker, many of the words that have shaped my language life come from abroad.

When I was growing up, my dad used the word “skosh” to mean “a little,” as in, “I’ll have just a skosh more coffee.” I never knew how to spell it, but when I lived in Japan, I learned where it came from: sukoshi, meaning “a little.” So I wandered around Tokyo and Hokkaido using the parent form of the word my dad used. If I had to guess, I would say the GIs brought it back from WWII after the occupation was over; Merriam-Webster seems to agree.

My first serious boyfriend was from Liverpool, and we used to stage word-battles between the versions of the language we both spoke: pavement vs. sidewalk, elevator vs. lift, car park vs. garage. Neither of us ever conceded defeat as we passionately outlined the ways in which our respective word choices were vastly superior, although now see how “lift” gets to the point faster than the overly formal “elevator.”

A fella from Manchester helped me seduce that same lad by teaching me rude Liverpudlian and Mancunian slang. I shan’t repeat any of it here, as this is a family show, but it is funny to remember that words played a significant part in that portion of my life. Rude words, at that. But then, I was 22, and at the time, rude words worked well in selected situations.

Tokyo was also where I learned about cockney rhyming slang: “apples and pears” for stairs, “dog and bone” for telephone, “plates of meat” for feet. I’m still sad that I don’t live in a country where I can use clever, musical phrases like that and have people understand me.

In my kitchen, there’s a metal sign I picked up at a flea market in LA that says, “tout va bien” (everything is fine, or will be fine). It’s a nod to my 13 years of French class as well as one of my overall philosophies. Call it simplistic, but those three words on that little sign have the power to calm me.

One of the sweetest memories of my childhood is learning the Polish for stock household phrases such as “what a pig,” “good soup” and “give me a kiss.” (Respectively, they are, “taka schvenia,” “dobre zuppa” and “dammi bougie.”)

When I traveled to Poland in 2000 with my mom, I served as the translator, because with two weeks of studying with tapes in the car to and from work, I was better prepared. Also, I am good with languages, and not afraid to make a complete fool of myself to strangers. For all these qualities, and for confidently waving aside the waitress’ concern about our order, we were rewarded with approximately 40 huge pierogies at a restaurant in Krakow. Behold the power of words.


  1. Glad to know there is someone else in the family into words as well! I think you might like this little online game, Heidi....try it and let me know what you has quite an online following...

  2. I have a Polish phrase I'd like to teach you, one I learned from my Dad. He says it when he's mad, and now so do I. (Also my five-year-old, which is pretty damn hilarious!)

    ChalYEDda PSHAcreff is my best attempt at transliteration. It means "cholera and dog's blood."


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