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11 Obscure Expressions of Surprise We Should Bring Back

Hulton Archive / Stringer // Getty Images
Hulton Archive / Stringer // Getty Images

Gobsmacked people commonly say “Wow!” or “Oh!” or “Holy excrement!” But shock, dismay, and astonishment are such common experiences that English has a plethora of exclamations to shout when taken aback. If you’re easily startled or just need some alternatives to “By the hammer of Thor!” and “Damn!,” read on for some old-timey outbursts.

1. AND 2. GUP AND GIP

Gup was a word directed in anger toward a horse back in the 1500s. Like many exclamations, gup drifted toward surprise over the years. Both meanings have also been conveyed by the word gip.

3. HOLY PRETZEL

As we learned from Burt Ward’s portrayal of the boy wonder Robin in the 1960s, any word can be an exclamation of astonishment if paired with holy, including this salty snack. Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS) records this one in Frederick Kohner’s 1963 book The Affairs of Gidget: “Holy pretzel! My face got aflame like paprika.”

4. I'LL BE JITTERBUGGED

Claude McKay used this term in his 1948 book Harlem Glory: A Fragment of American Life: “Suddenly he said: ‘I’ll be jitterbugged [...] Why, if it ain’t the big Buster himself.’” This meaning deserves wider use, as we could always use another word like gobsmacked.

5. STIFFEN THE WOMBATS

A number of strange-sounding Australian exclamations mentioned in Sidney J. Baker’s 1945 book The Australian Language deserve a comeback: “Here are some well-established variations on the theme to show that we have not been idle even in simple matters: speed the wombats! stiffen the lizards! stiffen the snakes! and stiffen the wombats!

6. AND 7. MY ELBOW AND MY WIG

Jonathon Green’s tremendous GDoS records this term in the UK since the early 1900s: It’s a euphemistic version of “My ass!” This is a natural expression since, according to idiom, these are the two most easily confused body parts. A similar expression is “My wig!” Sometimes folks get a little more verbose with this one, yelling, “My wig and whiskers!” or “My wigs and eyes!” The short version appeared in 1848, in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist: “‘Oh my wig, my wig!’ cried Master Charles Bates.”

8. PIMINY

Quite a few of these terms are minced oaths, which turn God and Jesus into more acceptable terms. This one is a euphemism squared. Piminy is an alternation of Jiminy, which has been used since the early 1800s (especially in the form Jiminy Christmas) to avoid saying Jesus Christ. In 1912, an article from Ohio’s Newark Advocate used the term in an example presumably designed to mimic a regional accent: “Jumping piminy, wat a hevy trunk.”

9. ZOOKERS

Speaking of minced oaths, here’s another, found in print since the 1600s. This is one of several variations of gadzooks, such as zooks, gadzookers, zoodikers, and zoonters. All these words mean “By God!” but exist due to the taboo surrounding God’s name. In William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1854 novel The Flitch of Bacon, the term is used to express dismay at an alarming marital situation: “I've ... Seen him make love to another woman.’ ‘To Mrs. Nettlebed?’ ‘Zookers! no.’”

10. FISHHOOKS

In Vermont, “Oh fishhooks!” is an exclamation of surprise, according to the wonderful Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

11. GOSH ALL HEMLOCK

DARE provides yet another testimony to English’s exclamatory versatility, quoting a 1959 book on the history of Vermont, which lists a colorful assortment of expressions: “Gosh all Fiddlesticks! ... Gosh all Filox! ... Gosh all Firelocks! ... Gosh all Frighty! ... Gosh all Fishhooks! ... Gosh all Hemlock! ... Gosh all Hemlocks and chew spruce gum! ... Gosh all Tarnation! ... Gosh all sufficiency!”

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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Why Are Small, Fancy Hats Called Fascinators?
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Chris Jackson, Getty Images

Even if you aren't invested in the lives of British royals, it will be worth tuning in to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding on May 19 for a glimpse at all the elaborate headgear. Fascinators—tiny, elaborate hats that are clipped to the wearer's head—are a popular fashion choice among the women of the royal family today. The name may seem like a perfect fit for the eye-catching accessory, but as Co.Design explains, the hat was called something entirely different until the 1960s.

The term fascinator first surfaced in the fashion world in 17th-century Europe. Back then, it referred to a lacy scarf women wrapped around their heads (or "fastened," hence the name). Rather than attracting stares from across the room, this version of the hat was meant to give women an alluring air of mystery. By the mid 20th-century, a slew of new hat styles hit the scene, leaving both the term fascinator and the garment it described to fall out of fashion.

In the 1960s, a New York milliner named John P. John decided it was time for the fascinator to make a comeback. Instead of thinking about the headpiece in its original sense, however, he used the name to rebrand the petite cocktail hats that were known at the time as clip-hats or half-hats. The sexy new name helped the already-popular design become even trendier.

Fascinators aren't that common in the U.S., but they're a staple of high-profile royal events in the UK. Princess Beatrice realized the accessory's full potential when she debuted her now-iconic fascinator at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. (She eventually auctioned it off on eBay for charity, where it sold for a cool $130,000.) As a result, her head will be the one to watch when she arrives at her cousin Harry's wedding this Saturday.

[h/t Co.Design]

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