Growing up Norwegian-American in the Midwest, I was steered clear of using “bad” words, most often by fear of stigmatization (parental or social). Accordingly, just about everyone I knew had to develop a sublimating finesse with language, finding ways around saying things “less cultured”.
Cultured, in that first world I ever knew, amounted to being well-mannered and kind. Humor was fine, as long as it wasn’t at someone else’s expense; hence, the self-deprecating Norwegian jokes that our tiny, mostly Norwegian community, enjoyed bantering good-naturedly.
Complaining, the way I remember, was akin to using bad words. A common answer to “how are you?” was “can’t complain”, said in a number of Scandinavian brogues. Everyone knew someone who’d had it worse, and no one knew when it would be their turn. Growing up in a culture where the livelihood of so many was by permission of the weather, one learned not to self-congratulate when things went well. Anyone who seemed to forget that may receive a reminder in the form of a common shaming expression, “you think you are so big!”
Maybe it was okay to be reminded of one’s size, scaled to the sky that bestows or withholds, and the God above all that. Oftentimes, though, I think people missed the meaning and purpose behind the reprimand—its balancing intent to remind people of humility. As a young person, I didn’t really understand it, especially if I heard it when I was simply exercising my youthful drive to try new things and aim high. Without understanding the context, this expression could be used wrong and hold people back from dreaming big.
The word God came into one’s quiet reflection, but was not so often said aloud. There were correct and incorrect ways of saying it. It was most often heard in sermons or sung in hymns. Some felt uncomfortable hearing the expression, “oh God,” as if that was what—a complaint?
When I was five years old, eagerly awaiting kindergarten, my older brother brought home a friend who said “Oh, God” quite a number of times in a way of emphasizing his feelings. At that time I could only wonder how he would risk it. I quietly and directly asked him if he was afraid of going to Hell. Unforgettable, in how it offended me, he laughed!
Hell, another word and concept we were all taught, was in some circles only said with due care. With so many snares by way of the tongue to get me into trouble, it was good that I had my pencils and crayons as a safe, expressive outlet.
By the time I was eleven years old, my family moved seventy miles to a place with a traffic light and one overpass, which impressed me. Is it possible that any folks back home wondered if we now all thought we were so “big”? The town was—nearly four times larger, with a population of nearly three thousand. Also larger was the list of frowned-upon words I was learning. How could only an hour’s drive be such another place? Even my kind and respected teacher surprised me when explaining “Gee”, gee-wiz” or any such derivation was wrong, as it was a euphemism for Jesus. I wondered aloud if being spelled with letter “G” made it alright, but he said what counted was how it sounded. I was running out of words—especially interjections—to express myself.
Fortunately, that first summer I met my new and lifelong friend. She recognized me as being “not from here” and introduced herself with five quick syllables. Perhaps it was my lost-and-found state of mind that altered my comprehension; unusual as it sounded, I thought she had given me only her first name, so I politely asked, “What’s your last name?” She burst out laughing, then corrected me warmly. Laughter that had stung me years earlier, now served as a bond. We were like cultural exchange students, enjoying to discover things the other didn’t already know. It was she who made me realize that something I’d heard all my life may not be something everyone else had heard. She couldn’t stop laughing when I first expressed my fatigue by saying “I am so pooped out”. I marveled at how this could be new to her.
Fortunately, I now had someone to share with me the travails of growing older—that is, growing into our teen years. With so many emerging questions and feelings, there were things we’d like to express, but had no words for. That’s when we came up with Shukabeela, an expression with a range of meanings we shared with only a few.
Uniqueness of language became more apparent when I married someone whose mother tongue was not my own. Fluent in English since childhood, and a better speller than I, it surprised me when he would take pause at expressions that I took for granted. For example, my habit of exclaiming, “don’t tell me!” when he said something interesting, produced an expression on his face that said, but I already told you. He got used to this and other idiomatic expressions such as “for crying out loud!” or “well, what do you know?” He marveled when he first heard me say I was going to “hit the hay,” which I had to translate: “going to bed.”
One essential interjection in Scandinavian-American parts of the United States is uff da, spelled and used in many ways. My husband took a liking to that word, especially for how adaptable it was.
Years later, miles away from its Scandinavian roots, the word oofta drew blank stares, reminding us that we may as well have said, “shukabeela”. Both words have fans—even new ones—perhaps because we need more words to emphasize our thoughts and feelings, without offending anyone. Well, shukabeela!
Something else you may have never heard: traditional Norwegian fiddle music.