Gus, a guy I knew in New Jersey, was at a diner in upstate New York somewhere, when the man behind the counter asked where he was from. “Moonachie,” Gus said, which was the name of his northern New Jersey town. It’s pronounced moo-NAH-kee and is supposed to come from an Iroquoi word.
“He looked like he could kill me,” Gus told me. “All red in the face and everything.” Apparently something that sounds like moo-NAH-kee, in the native language of the counterman, is a gross obscenity.
Which reminds me of what my friend Fred told me when we were in high school. He had a summer job in a factory where a couple of the workers were from a foreign country. They happily taught him one of their obscene insults.
It sounded like ka-SOOM-ik and referred to a part of your mother’s anatomy that is never mentioned in polite company. In any kind of company, in fact. Furthermore, if you wanted to return the insult, you would say ka-soom-ik ENTA, which meant your ka-soom-ik, assuring an even exchange of filthy insults. These terms, of course, became part of our lingo throughout high school and beyond.
When I used to commute from New Jersey to New York City, one night a man at the back of the bus kept saying something over and over. He said it in a loud, plaintive voice. It sounded like fuzz-wah-luh-ZOO.
The next day I told my family about the man and his strange utterance. Barbara, who was 14, was delighted to learn a strange new word of unknown meaning and shared it with her friends, who all added it to their vocabulary.
One night 20 years later, one of Barbara’s old friends phoned to ask for Barbara’s current phone number. Barbara told us later why Jean wanted to reestablish contact after many years. Jean was on the bus from New York and a man kept saying—you guessed it—fuzz-wah-luh-ZOO.
For all I know, it could mean My ankle has a blister or Your mother is my Latin teacher. Speakers of that man’s tongue will please enlighten me, unless of course it is that language’s equivalent of ka-SOOM-ik or moo-NAH-kee. . . .