Uff-da, Sputten & Vasakope: Words without Equal

I’ve been thinking about Hebrew words and language lately, and analyzing the words that I use. I’ve noticed that my vocabulary is peppered with words from other languages.

uff-daMany of my unusual words come from my Norwegian ancestors. For instance, I grew up saying uff-da. Many have seen “uff-da” on bumper-stickers and refrigerator magnets, but I grew up with uff-da in my blood. I was saying it long before it starting coming out on coffee mugs.

Uff-da is an exclamation that means “Eww” or “Yuck” or “How too bad”. If you’re taking out the garbage and you spill it all over, you cry out, “Uff-da!” Or, if a friend tells you that they tripped on the ice and sprained their wrist, you say, “Oh, uff-da!” It expresses your shock and dismay.

Another Norwegian word that my family used was vasakope (VAH-sah-kope). It’s a semi-humorous way to refer to a child who just won’t mind — a mischievous little imp, a scallywag. When a child is misbehaving, his or her exasperated mom might exclaim, “Such a vasakope you are today!” I’m not sure how the rest of you get along without it – it comes in handy so often. I must know a lot of impish children.

I’ve also learned a few words from my friends of Dutch heritage here in western Michigan. They talk about “kletzing,” which I think means gathering with friends for conversation and fun. Or being “benauwt,” which means to feel oppressed or stifled. People use the term either when they are anxious or when they’re sweltering on a hot, muggy day. When I try to translate, my friends say, “well, that’s not quite it” – the words have a mood all their own.

One Dutch word I particularly enjoy is “sputten.” It’s to be irreverent, flippant, or too casual about religious matters. When my friends were kids, if they started making fun of the way the pastor preached or told jokes about Jesus, an elderly aunt would chide them with, “No more sputten here!” You can sense the immigrant piety of their Dutch upbringing.

A common feature of all these interesting ethnic words is that they express ideas that don’t quite carry over to English. They encapsulate a unique mood or a cultural attitude. Or, they define something in that is true, but has just not been boiled down to a word that we have. Instead of translating them, it’s more effective to just use the foreign original and then explain to those who don’t get it.

What about you, the readers of this blog? What interesting words have you been using that just don’t have an equivalent in English?


For more on the meanings of Hebrew words that don’t quite translate into English, see my latest book, 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know.


13 Responses to “Uff-da, Sputten & Vasakope: Words without Equal”

  1. 1
    Deborah|February 12, 2013

    Oh, my…”Uff-dah” a very familiar word to me, and “Nemon” — another norwegian word…and then there’s tak scah da ha (sp?) and lefsa (o.k. that’s a food, but one well worth talking about).

    Love me them words! 🙂

  2. 2
    Joel|February 13, 2013

    I grew up in a small Norwegian-American town and lived in Minneapolis for a while, and “Uff-da” was used frequently in both places–but I never heard a translation of it until you provided it in this post! Tusen takk. Where are you from?

  3. 3
    Joel|February 13, 2013

    I forgot to say: people also used the word “fee-da” to express extreme disgust, but I have no idea how that translates from Norwegian into English. If they wanted to go beyond “Fee-da” they might say “Uff-da, fee-da, ish-da” (which seems to have a Yiddish component).

  4. 4
    Lois Tverberg|February 13, 2013

    My family is mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin – I’m 100% Norwegian on both sides. I’ve heard of fee-da but never grew up saying it.

    And “takk skal du ha” means “thanks shall you have” – it’s a more expressive way to say thanks (takk). And “tusen takk” is “a thousand thanks.” (Norwegians have a lot of ways to say thanks.)

  5. 5
    Deborah|February 13, 2013

    I kind of really like the idea that my ancestors were given to thanks…

  6. 6
    Lois Tverberg|February 13, 2013

    I asked this question on the ORJ Facebook page and had a good comment.

    Here’s a great loanword: schadenfreude. It’s from German, and it’s pronounced “shah-den-FROY-deh.”

    It means “taking delight in the misfortune of others.” In one word, it it puts its finger on a whole slice of reality, and when you hear it, you instantly recognize it. But in English, we have to use a whole sentence to explain what it means.

  7. 7
    Tom Schuessler|February 14, 2013

    Great topic: In Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, at one time (no more) a strong Jewish community, we heard lots of Yiddish. Unfortunately, I have to admit that on my bad days … I feel like this is me: shlemiel
    A clumsy, inept person, similar to a klutz (also a Yiddish word). The kind of person who always spills his soup.
    Now that’s an evocative word.

  8. 8
    Joel|February 14, 2013

    Haha! Nice one, Tom. Another one I love is “shlumpy.” To me it means something like lethargic, lacking in verve.

  9. 9
    Lois Tverberg|February 17, 2013

    Yiddish seems to be a source of a lot of great loanwords. Shlumpy – great word.

    I admit, one great word, “verklempt,” I learned from Saturday Night Live. They often did a talk-show sketch with three Jewish ladies, and when one of them would get choked up with emotion, she’d say, “Oh, I’m getting all ‘verklempt’ – talk amongst yourselves…”


    I think I started using it in my own vocabulary the very first week I heard it.

  10. 10
    Hillari|February 18, 2013

    I like the adjective, “sputtonous” 🙂 Also, there should be something like “sputtinitude” to denote an aptitude of the sputtonous usage of sputton. Or, sputtitudinous to denote an atmosphere of sputton. Uff da.

  11. 11
    Lois Tverberg|February 18, 2013

    Uff-da! My family talks about vasakopatude and vasakopatudinousness occasionally too. 🙂

  12. 12
    Lois Tverberg|February 6, 2014

    Joel, I heard a great definition of “Uff-da” and “Fee-da” from a friend of Norwegian heritage.

    Uff-da is when you’re out in the barn and your gum falls out of your mouth.

    Fee-da is when you put the gum back in!

  13. 13
    Joel|February 16, 2014


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