Word Wealth

Certain words from other languages express meanings that no English words can.

Words are our raw material. With words, we can construct both simple and elaborate systems of communication, from one-word greetings to dense, idea-packed sentences. But words alone are, at best, interesting dictionary entries. As elements of languages that form the warp and woof of cultures, words are like jewels threaded through a tapestry.

Part of the richness of English comes from the thousands of words derived from other languages. Nevertheless, there are occasions when no English word expresses the nuance of a situation. A friend who is a linguist once commented that English was the language of commerce, but was lacking in vocabulary expressive of complex social relations. Maybe so.

If she is right, that could explain why over the years I've found myself resorting to an increasing number of words from languages other than English, not only in conversation, but also while writing. (This might also be explained by the fact that English is not my native language; during those all-important formative years, English was only used for inconsequential matters. It may have been the language of my family's adopted country, but it was never the language of their soul.)

This is probably the case for the majority of immigrant families who, over the years, witness their descendants gradually lose any connection to their ethnic roots and become part of the homogenized, celebrity-crazed, consumerist culture we call American. As an antidote to this mind-deadening sameness that breeds creatures such as Britney Spears, I humbly offer readers a collection of some of my favorite words and phrases--language I use to spice up a sentence be it spoken word or written text.

Some of what follows is from languages that traditionally did not exist in any written form; hence the English spelling is based on whim. Some words might be found in any decent dictionary since, over time and through usage, they've been incorporated into the lexicon. And some may draw the ire of The Weekly's most exacting readers because they lack proper pronunciation symbols. (I haven't a clue how to do that in a word processing program.)

Here then, for your pleasure and possible edification, and in no order other than utterly random, is a small collection of the word wealth I treasure.

AGITA: Italian dialect from the word for excited or agitated. When articulated in a certain context, a regional usage refers to gastric juices pouring into the gut as a result of an annoying or stressful situation. Example: Your yelling is giving me agita. ALTER KOCKER: Yiddish. Could be a vulgarism, but, on the other hand, maybe not. A curmudgeon, an old man who has lost his oomph. (No, it has nothing to do with English "cock" and everything to do with German "kock.")

OY VAY (or just OY): Yiddish. Arguably among the most expressive of words in any language. While vay is derived from the German weh, meaning "woe," oy, used alone, can convey a rainbow of meaning depending on the context and situation. Examples: Oy, I didn't expect you. Oy, he is such a putz (jerk). Oy vay, what a rough day.

STURM UND DRANG: German. This is a wonderful example of onomatopoeia; the sound of these words is a great match for their meaning. Literally storm and stress, the usage is broader than the meaning. Examples: Oy, her life is full of sturm und drang. The Wagner opera we saw tonight was heavy with sturm und drang.

MISHEGOSS: Yiddish. I've seen this word spelled at least a half-dozen ways. Bizarre, crazy, weird, absurd, beyond explanation. Examples: That idea is mishegoss. Sheeesh, every time I meet my brother-in-law, he's got a new scheme that is just mishegoss. There's a folk saying, "Every man has his own mishegoss," according to Leo Rosten. You might think the English word "crazy" could be used, but you'd be wrong; there is a subtle nuance to the Yiddish word that does not exist in English.

MESHUGGE: Yiddish. Another of those words with multiple spellings. Related to mishegoss, that same brother-in-law could be referred to as meshugge, or crazy. Depending on the context, however, meshugge could be used as a term of endearment. Go figure.

PUTZ: Yiddish. Slang for penis, it is used to refer to a man as a jerk or fool. (Rather interesting that this word has a derogatory connotation.) Example: He is such a putz, he can't get anything right.

STOOGATZ: Italian dialect. Not unlike putz, but used differently. While you would not use this word to refer to someone, you would use it abstractly in place of the word nothing. Example: You can expect stoogatz for your birthday. It can also be used as an expletive.

NU: Yiddish. Derived from the Russian word meaning "well." An astoundingly versatile word, nu can be used in a variety of ways depending on context, inflection and intent. Do you agree; what's happening; what's your hurry, are just a few of its many usages. Examples: Nu? (How are things?) I saw you at that fancy French restaurant with Clara. Nu? (What's up with that?)

DUMMKOPF: German. Literally dumb head, twit, fool; this word can be used either insultingly or endearingly. Examples: I can't believe he did that; what a dummkopf! You put the plate on the wrong shelf again, sweetie. You're such a dummkopf!

BUBKES: Yiddish. From the Russian for beans, it's not used to mean beans (as in pinto), but rather something insignificant, trivial, or even nothing. Example: If you want to make a living as a poet, be prepared to earn bubkes.

Since tone and inflection carry their own meaning, using words in their written form always risks misunderstanding, especially when words can voice a range of expression. But if you enjoy language and its playful possibilities, the pleasure potential is worth the gamble.

Comments (2)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly