Saturday, June 2, 2012


Despite  the homogenization of the culture at the level of the media, regional differences stubbornly remain. In each of our last two major moves—from Virginia to Minnesota, from Minnesota to Detroit—at first the population had an unaccustomed look and sound. By the time we got here, I knew that, in a little while, the people would just look like people again, not in any way as “the natives”; yet I still say, when in automatic, “this country,” meaning the Michigan region. When we moved to Minnesota, we frankly expected people to be taller and blonder; instead they turned out to be shorter and wider. We did not expect them to be friendlier and livelier, but they turned out to be both. And soon they were just people again. We had abandoned our attempts to discover Scandinavians origins beneath names like Carmello or Sibrinski. But there was one difference—in the speech modes. People didn’t say “Are you coming with us?” They said, “Are you coming with?” Now that reminded us of German, where they say the same thing in the same way: “Kommst du mit?” That mit is “with.” And they used an exclamation that had us puzzled—but, in my case, only briefly. People would hear some news and they would say: “Uffdah!”

That expression has context, not meaning. I recognized it right away because my Father (and many others in Hungary) used to say Puffti! — and always in the same contexts. That word has no more meaning in Hungarian than Uffdah has in Norwegian—where it originates. The uff part is a Norwegian exclamation signaling something negative; the dah is an added emphasis. Do you want to know when to say Uffdah? Herewith some instructions.

You do not make that sound when something bad happens right in front of you—or only quietly, to yourself. You only use the word when you hear someone else tell the story of some mishap. You do not use that expression when something really bad happens. The trouble or disaster should be unfortunate, but not too terrible. Suppose you’re told that so-and-so, having just finished applying the last artful swirl of frosting to a wedding cake, decided to move it to another surface—and she managed to drop the whole glorious thing. Uffdah! you say. That’s the right context. Keep this in mind for your next trip to Minnesota. If you should forget it, however, here is a translation of that memorable sound into homogenized American English. It is Ouch!

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