News – 14th February, 2012


News–14th February, 2012


Is it possible, I ask myself, to somehow follow the life or the soul of a nation through this one tiny expression? - The musings of a translator of Hungarian literature a propos of the reappearance of an old expression of greeting.

When I first began visiting Hungary in the late 1980s, I was struck by the near-universal of a—and to me, somewhat pleasantly antiquated—expression of greeting (in use generally by men or children exclusively to women, and at times from younger women to older): Csókolom, an abbreviated form of the expression, Kezét csókolom, literally, 'I kiss your hand'. During this period it was usually uttered in off-hand, sardonic tones as once, for example, when I was getting into a cab; I was as well always struck by the fact that most often the object was left out of the greeting (i.e., 'your hand').

In the early 1990s, the phrase Csókolom slowly but surely began to disappear. By the time I had settled in Prague with my husband in 1998, and began to visit Budapest more frequently, it seemed to have vanished. Frankly, I missed it somewhat. As a card-carrying feminist I perhaps should have hated it, but something in me appreciated the seemingly old-fashioned gentility inherent in the phrase.

To provide a counter-example from a (once and nearly) neighbouring country, the expression Ruku líbám ('I kiss your hand', in Czech) also once in use, could never now evoke anything than a sarcastic guffaw. Indeed, one of my Czech professors at Charles University who had been born during the First Republic—and it has long seemed to me that those born during that era (1918-1938), their numbers ever dwindling, bear a certain inexpressible grace and dignity, just as President Havel himself did to the end—once told us students that even in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as a small child, he hated using this phrase, which his mother insisted he utter even if they happened to pass a female neighbour on the stairs, poking him a bit in the ribs if he didn't comply.

As for Poland, a writer friend of mine, now sadly deceased, who spent time there once said to me: 'They don't just say it, they do it. It's devastating.'

That selfsame Czech professor, whose job it was to bore into our heads the seemingly impossibly complicated byways and labyrinths of Czech morphology, once responded when I told him how a simple shop owner of a run-down basement establishment in Budapest had greeted me with the phrase Csókolom (the shop was located a block or so away from the train station, and it was on an utterly stifling August day). He interpreted its use in this case as rather a kind of clever sales strategy, as opposed to the attempted revival of an older half-forgotten gentility.

Of course, as a female, I was not personally affected by the dilemma of when and where to use this phrase. Still, over the years, I somehow involuntarily charted the fortunes of this little greeting, its seeming decline and fall. Finally, during my frequent visits to Budapest at the turn of the millennium and after, it seemed to me at least that its usage had fallen almost completely out of use. The final death knell—as far as I was concerned—came around 2003 or 2004, when, while listening to a radio program about language and grammar (also sadly gone—but by this time I had had a satellite installed to ensure a continuous flow of the Magyar tongue into our kitchen), the moderator, a well-known linguist, in response to a listener's question, announced: "The expression csókolom should be used only in family circles."

Well, I thought, that was it for me, as I officially do not have any Hungarian relatives, or the ones I do have don't speak a word of Hungarian, let alone to me, and I would imagine the subject would be of little concern to them. I supposed—perhaps naively—I would hardly ever hear the expression ever again.

Except that recently I have been hearing it more and more. And it doesn't have the old sardonic ring anymore. I've heard it from young men behind newsstand counters, delivery truck men, in fact from almost any man on the street who happens to come into contact with me. Almost universally now, it is uttered in enthusiastic, almost touchingly earnest tones: the old irony is gone.

Is it possible, I ask myself, to somehow follow the life or the soul of a nation through this one tiny expression: a phrase that 20 or so years ago seemed to carry a near Hapsburgian quaintness, the absurdity of which the speaker was somehow forced to acknowledge by layering over with a perceptible dose of irony, only then to fade into the background, and now be suddenly resurrected with a boyishly poignant ardour?

Yes, I have to admit it. I miss the old 'Csókolom'.

Photo by Ottlilie Mulzet

Ottilie Mulzet


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