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The Untranslatables: On Pochemuchkas, Lacunae, And Hangovers


A Pochemuchka confronts Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

A Pochemuchka confronts Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Russians made their way onto Cracked.com's insidiously viral list of "9 Foreign Words That The English Language Desperately Needs" at No. 2.

The word: Pochemuchka (почемучка), which is used to describe "a person who asks too many questions."

Cracked explains the origin of the Russian word and, since it's much cleaner than that of the No. 1 entry from Finnish (via BoingBoing), we can share it here:

Naturally, this word comes from a country in which asking too many questions will result in death. But maybe more surprisingly, it originates from the children's book Alyosha Pochemuchka, which is the story of a young boy who constantly asks "Why?" There are no copies of it online, so we can only assume it's a parable about a Russian child who started getting too nosy about government affairs and was quickly taken care of.

It's a bit of a neologistic fudge, in my view. Pochemuchka was a Dickensian-style derivative of the Russian word for "why" (pochemu, or почему). It is unsurprising that the name of a boy named after the word "why," in a language where diminutives are de rigueur, should become synonymous with an overly inquisitive person. It has a tautological taint about it, is all I'm saying.

Whatever the merits of Pochemuchka's inclusion, this latest take on "untranslatables" is a fun read. And like the best of click candy, it whets the appetite for more.

A fellow Praguer's Facebook thread on the Cracked article included a reference to Czech expatriate novelist Milan Kundera, whose narrator in "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" familiarized the rest of the world with the Czech word "litost" as "a state of torment upon by the realization of one's inadequacy or misery."

But as I look out the office window and see one of the warmest, clearest weekend skies I've seen in Prague for a while, my thoughts are on another curious Czech phrase that came up in discussion with a part-time translator last week. I'm sure someone's written about it in English, perhaps one of the countless Western expats blogging from this beer drinker's paradise. But to be frank, today I just can't be bothered to Google that.

The word is opicka (pronounced oh-peetch-kuh). As in, "Today, I have an opicka." It's like a hangover in that it generally follows alcoholic and social excess, but there's a separate word that Czechs use for that awful and debilitating feeling of sick: kocovina (pronounced koh-tsoh-veen-uh). Literally, an opicka is a "little monkey." And rather than leaving you reeling on a sofa, this hairy little varmint puts a spring in your step...even if you're stuck at the office on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. For a few hours, at least.

-- Andy Heil

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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