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<   No. 2031   2008-08-18   >

Comic #2031

1 Serron: So, our cargo's worth bupkis here on Eisbach. We can just go to a different planet where the market is strong and sell it there.
2 Paris: In theory, yes. In practice, we have to sell the lot at the local depressed price to pay for docking fees and fuel before we can leave.
3 Serron 2: Or we could just skip the system without paying.
3 Serron: That sounds good to me.
4 Paris: We can't do that!
4 Serron 2: I'm from the future, remember? We already did!

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Bupkis is one of those interesting words that I only ever hear on American TV shows. I doubt I've ever heard anyone say it in real life. I didn't even know how it was spelt before I looked it up (and in fact there are a few alternative spellings floating around out there, but "bupkis" appears to be the most common). I have a pretty good idea of what it means, at least in the metaphorical sense in which it is used to refer to something of little or no value.

I was interested to learn that it is Yiddish in origin, and apparently derives from a longer word literally meaning "goat droppings".

This turned me to thinking about words that we understand, through exposure to media from other cultures, but never use ourselves, nor hear in the conversations that occur around us. I can think of... oh, dozens of examples. I could probably come up with a list of several hundred, if not over a thousand, with a little bit of reference time. And I don't just mean words that are different between English dialects (for example, I say "coriander" where an American would say "cilantro", so I never use the word "cilantro" at all, nor does anyone around me). I mean words like "bupkis", which, although you can find something basically equivalent in my vocabulary ("squat" comes to mind: "Our cargo is worth squat"), isn't really simply a dialectical alternative for the same object.

I don't really have a point to make, except that by thinking about it for a few minutes, I can estimate that there are probably of the order of a thousand or more words like this - from a different culture and that I understand perfectly well, but never use myself because my own culture doesn't use them.

2020-01-12 Rerun commentary: There's a distinction between words from other English-speaking cultures that I understand but never use myself, versus words from non-English-speaking cultures that I understand (but don't generally use).

Different again are words from non-English-speaking cultures that I understand and do occasionally use, but which are not in general usage around me. For an example of this, my wife and I occasionally use "yalla" as a direction to go or hurry up. This word comes from Arabic, and we learnt it together on a trip to Morocco, and used it so much over there that it's now entered our personal vocabularies. Of course, most non-Arabic-speaking people around us don't use this word, and probably don't know what it means.

Some non-Australian English words that I understand, but never use because there is a different word or they're just not in common use in Australian English, or the very concept doesn't even exist in Australian culture:

I could keep going and add many more, but you get the idea.

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