Nov 20, 2011

Smiley Words

Isn't it interesting, the meaning we put on words, whether for serious conversation or just for fun?

I once worked with a recent German immigrant to Canada who continually repeated the word Tuktoyaktuk. If you’d asked him a question he’d always say Tuktoyaktuk before anything else. Of course he was just showing off his sense of humour; that he loved the sound of this new word.

Tuktoyaktuk is a town or an outpost, a northern settlement in the far north of Canada situated on the Arctic Ocean. The word comes from the Inuit people and it means “resembling a caribou.”  To this day, I don’t really know if he knew what he was saying, as he told everybody he encountered that they resembled a caribou. He just enjoyed the word.

During the 1970s, I was sent on assignment to communist Romania to film Easter festivities in the northern province of Moldavia. Colour, egg-cracking and worship filled the scene as the local people dressed in their traditional costumes and gathered at their historic churches. They also displayed their creative skills by exquisitely hand-painting hard-boiled eggs with various designs. These were wonderful sights, but documentary filming has it’s long hours.

After a particularly long, difficult day of filming that had started at four in the morning with a church procession, the cameraman, Wally, who I was working with, suddenly felt the compulsion for an ice cream. We were in the north of the country near the Soviet border, staying in a small city called Sucava. It was Easter and most places were closed.

We raced to town in our small rental car and scoured the city, first to find a shop that was open, then to try and translate the word “ice cream” into Romanian. Wally spotted a booth that sold lottery tickets. He ran up to the booth and quickly rimed off the word, ice cream in French: creme glacee, Italian: gelato, Spanish: el helado and German: die eiscreme. Well, the lotto man looked at Wally’s enthusiasm and laughed, then he just smiled as he slowly spoke the word: inghetata.

And the race was on. Inghetata suddenly became the key to our happiness.

We both raced around the town square like fools, going up to strangers and saying the word Inghetata in their faces. Some smiled, others must have thought we were lunatics. Finally, Wally confronted an old lady, “Ah! Inghetata.” she said, and pointed toward the street where we had just driven.

We both ran and probably found the last open ice cream shop in the city that was about to close. On the front, in big letters, was the word: Inghetata. The shopkeeper saw how desperate we were, so he let us in to sample some of the best ice cream I have ever tasted. Wally was happy.

From that time on both Wally and I had a secret word between us, inghetata. And each time we would see each other at events or on film shoots for the next few years, we would mutter the word to each other.

Each language has it's fun words. I love the words: marmalade, umbrella, brouhaha, cantankerous, discombobulated, gobbledygook, rambunctious, mollycoddle, nincompoop.

Inghetata, remains the only word I have ever learned of the Romanian language and I say it each time I meet a Romanian. The times have been numerous, and each time it brings a big smile.


"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."
-Maya Angelou

"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music that words make.
- Truman Capote

"Ice-cream is exquisite - what a pity it isn't illegal."
- Voltaire