“Substantivum commune” – the uncommon common noun in Lithuanian
Let me explain. These are nouns that are common in the sense that they are both masculine and feminine. (Ahem—some may actually remember the concept of masculine and feminine nouns from your high school foreign language classes.) But these nouns are certainly not ordinary; you don’t come across them very often in writing. Most often they’re pretty insulting. In the course of indulging my fascination with them, I started a list that I kept stuck to the refrigerator. I’ve had native Lithuanians look it over and express amazement that they were so many they’d never heard of, which makes me suspect that many are dialectical. Nevertheless, quite a few fall into the category of my favorite words. They are all, so far as I can tell, nouns for people (or animals) with particular characteristics, and very useful indeed for insults, although they can also be terms of endearment.
Take naktibalda, for example. Made from a mash-up of naktis (night) and baldyti (to knock, to bang or to roam, to gad about), it’s a wonderful word for the teenager who likes to stay up late at night. Another one I love is čiupna, from čiupinėti (to finger, to touch, to handle). This perfectly describes my son, who, as a child, could not keep his hands off things. He would usually finger them into fragments, so setting anything down on the kitchen table was an invitation to disaster. But I’ve known adults who were just as bad.
As you can imagine, it is sometimes very difficult to come up with an appropriate translation for words like this—if anyone can come up with a direct translation for čiupna, I beg you to let me know, and I’ll add it to my list! They often don’t even appear in translation dictionaries, and the Oxford American thesaurus is too polite to include entries for insults, so you’re left hunting your memory for the really appropriate ones. After all, a lout is not necessarily the same as an oaf. And sometimes there is a direct translation that somehow seems lacking: I cannot tell why, but žiopla seems much stronger than “gaper.” I suppose “gaping fool” is closer, but now we’re into multiple words.
Other Lithuanian words do have plenty of English equivalents to pick from, like, for example, the multitude of words for a chatterbox (čiauškalas, kliauga, niektauza, pačiauška, papliauška, and many more). Another set of words that seem equally popular in both languages are those for stupid people. Then there’s this charming Lithuanian word: švėna, for someone who talks nonsense, slowly. Now that’s getting pretty specific, but it does sound like a particularly hellish combination.
The Lithuanian words I find most difficult to find English equivalents for are the ones that describe a person’s physical characteristics. Let’s be totally not politically correct! Curiously, or perhaps not given the cultural background, there are a lot of them. Whereas English seems to restrict itself mostly to height and weight, in Lithuanian there’s words like tursa, a stooped person, and gūra, a large, stooped person; sketra, someone who swings their arms as they walk; and pampla, a short person with a potbelly. There are also quite a few that describe a person, or let’s hope more frequently an animal, in terms of their health. So you have gargalas, someone who wheezes when they talk, or is short of breath; susna, a scabby, mangy creature; gaišena, a sickly, weak person or animal (from the word gaišti, which is used to describe an animal dying); alseika or dusna, a breathless person; and išdvasa, dvasna, or džiūsna, a dried-up, weak, shriveled person. Or animal. The Lithuanians were farmers, after all!
The Lithuanian’s Yiddish neighbors seem to have had a similar taste for nouns to describe people, and to our good fortune, a number have come into English: just for starters, there’s klutz, kvetch, nebbish, schmuck, schmo, schnook, schlepper, schlimazel, schlemiel, schlub—(why do so many start with “sch”?), and zhlub. Undoubtedly other neighborhood languages are rife with these as well. Perhaps a comparative dictionary is in order?
If anyone is interested, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to share my list of these special Lithuanian nouns.