“Ojalá que sí,” my mother sometimes says, repeating a phrase she picked up while serving in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica nearly 25 years ago. The words, in Spanish adopted from Arabic, express the hope that God (Allah) willing, something will work out.
The phrase was ubiquitous in the town where my parents served for two years after their retirement, and it has worked its way into our family, Those members who speak Spanish may use it, and everyone else understands it. Will everyone be able to make it to Thanksgiving in Vermont this year? Ojalá que sí.
I began thinking about the ways that travel has altered the vocabulary of my large clan after I took an online dialect quiz that was briefly and explosively popular via Facebook before overwhelming digital traffic shut it down. In 25 questions about the words I use and the ways I pronounce them, the quiz accurately pinpointed my birthplace and home territory in central Connecticut. Same for my daughter and son-in-law.
I wonder, though, what the quiz would make of ojalá que sí or some of the other outside words and phrases that have made it into the vocabulary of my family.
My aunt lived for a while on Oahu, and came away with a number of colorful phrases. “Stink eye” is one that spread through the family, although none of the rest of us had spent more than a few weeks of vacation in Hawaii.
What better phrase than “stink eye” to describe the phenomenon of someone staring at another person with undisguised ill will? “Staring daggers,” which is the only New England equivalent I can think of, seems both overly dramatic and weirdly medieval. And so if I complain about someone “giving me the stink eye,” my family understands what I mean.
Perhaps the appeal of such a phrase is that it is easily understood by anyone without much explanation. What else could stink eye be? (Besides a really disgusting infection.)
A joke can be enough to cement a word into the family culture. Several members of my family visited St. Petersburg in tandem and noticed, as many tourists do, that in Russian, the word for restaurant, though pronounced more or less restoran, is rendered PECTOPAH in the Cyrillic alphabet. Throughout the visit we talked about which pectopah to go to, and the usage survived the trip home for use in occasional playful references.
Some other phrases we’ve known and used haven’t really stuck with us, though. Maybe they’re not obvious enough. Or maybe they just seem to belong too much to a particular place.
My husband, who grew up on Long Island but attended the University of Minnesota, has been known to let fly an “uff da” to express the idea that something is astonishing or overwhelming. He does that very rarely at home but I noticed that he used it several times when we were visiting Minneapolis.
Our daughter attended McGill University in Montreal and so we visited often and learned some of the local lingo. Dep, short for depanneur, is a convenience store. A loonie is a one-dollar coin and a toonie is a two-dollar coin.
Back in Connecticut we have no dollar coins to speak of but we do have convenience stores. Dep would be a handy shorthand way to refer to them. And SAQ (an acronym for the Société des alcools du Québec that is pronounced “sack” in our version of Frenglish) is an easy way to say liquor store. But, no, at home, we stick with “convenience store” and that odd New England term “package store,” which can be shortened to “packie.”
Our own lingo, naturally, can seem pretty colorful to visitors. I was reminded of this in 2011, when I was flying to Baltimore in the back of a Southwest jet, seated near a half-dozen or so retired linemen from the Deep South. (Or linesmen in Britain, as long as I’m word geeking.)
They’d come out of retirement and up to Connecticut to rewire us after a horrible October nor’easter that knocked out our power for more than a week. This involved, among other fun and novel experiences for me, hauling toilet water out of a stream with a bucket tied to a rope. Not having to do that any more made me particularly well disposed toward the gentlemen on the plane.
So they were returning home with a lot of gratitude and some new vocabulary words. As one of them explained, to the merriment of the others:
“I was out working and a guy came out of his house and he asked me ‘Do you want a grinder?’ and I said, ‘No thanks, I got all the equipment I need right here in the truck.’ He said, ‘I mean a sandwich’ and then he brought me a hoagie.’ ”
I like to think that the retired linesman, even if he never hears anyone refer to a hoagie as a “grinder” again, still laughs when he thinks about it.