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Sayings and Proverbs

Culture > Sayings and Proverbs > Mama-isms.

Culture > Sayings and Proverbs

submitted by George Poulos on 05.10.2006


Like so many other Kytherian and Greek women my Mama never formally learnt English.

She learnt by listening to the way that others spoke. Sometimes she "mis-heard" the enunciation of words - and the result was what we used to call "Wog-lish". Constance M. Constant calls it ”Gree-lish.”

Did/does your Kytherian/Greek mama speak in "Mama-isms"?


"A lounge". As in, "did you get your a lounge, this week"?
- Did your allowance arrive?

"don eksellerate" - "don't exaggerate".

"over-wide" - "overweight"

"disgustal" - "disgusted".

"samju" - sandwich.

Mama-isms in Austin Lunch

An outline, & how to purchase Austin Lunch

Page 71 -
Learning English presented a Himalayan-sized hurdle for most immigrants, since the new language was filled with alien sounds and a strange alphabet. Still, Mama picked up English faster than anyone dreamed possible because of her daily contact with American custom­ers and her own determination to learn. The Austin Lunch gave her one of her many crash-courses in Americanization. Still, it took months before she could carry on a conversation in English. More than once a customer, preoccupied with what he was reading in the news, pushed the paper in front of her. “What do you think of this, Mrs. Paul?”

“So sorry,” Mama would respond, digging her hands in the pock­ets of her crisp, beige uniform. “Guess I forget my eye-glasses home today.”
Mama also dreaded being put on the spot when customers who were illiterate or couldn’t afford reading glasses asked her to read the menu.

“So I memorize the bill of fare every day because the foods on it was changing every single day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every morning I go in the kitchen and ask Charlie ‘What’s on the menu today?’ I listen careful and remember every single item on the long list he tell me. I alloways know everything on the menu by heart. Prices and all. So no­body ask and I get embarrass because I don’t know good English.”

Mama didn’t even start wearing glasses until she was fifty. Although she gradually learned to read English, she was always most comfort­able with words printed in capitals, and she couldn’t read cursive writ­ing at all. Too busy raising children and working, she learned all she knew by listening. Correctly or not, Mama pronounced words as she heard them. Her efforts to communicate sometimes resulted in “Mama-isms,” her own word inventions like, “Blow zero” (colder than zero degrees Fahrenheit), “Hotsy totsy,” (her version of Hunky Dory), “It’s the really McCoy,” “Happy Universary,” “Goodgradulations,” “Rosie bush” (shrubs bearing fragrant flowers) and “Marshow Feel’s,” (Marshall Field’s) and “Alleluia on the bum!”
“When we first come to America, your Uncla Pete (Aphroditi’s husband), Aionia tou I mnimi (May his memory be eternal) he told me, ‘Go to school. Learn English! You be sorry if you don’t do it.’ Pete was right. But when Tasia and me come to America there was no English classes for big people. You had to go to first grade class if you want to learn English. I tell him, ‘I’m not going to school with babies. I’m too old to be in first grade.’ I make big mistake back then, Helen. I should listen to your Uncla Pete. He was right. May God take care his good soul.”
Mama fondly remembered Pete Kuchuris for the advice he gave her whenever she struggled with her adopted tongue.

Page 241

New Words in a New World.

Our children are learning to read and write in Greek

—Tasia to her father, May, 1936

There’s an old saying, “The Greeks have a word for it.” I have heard at least three different Greek words for sister-in-law:
kouniada (which means my husband’s sister), nymphi (my brother’s wife) and synyphada (my husband’s brother’s wife). This is just one example. Greek immigrants appreciated the richness of their language, and a visceral desire to preserve it conflicted with their urgent need to learn and use English. My parents were determined that Nick and I would learn both languages.

Life in America forced them to invent words for which they knew no Greek equivalents. “Pineapple,” “strawberry,” “grapefruit,” and “sandwich,” to name but a few, were unknown in the Greek villages they left behind. As a result, newly arrived immigrants at the begin-fling of the twentieth century became as capable as the ancients in creating words; by necessity they produced new additions to their Greek vocabularies, creating a sort of”Gree-lish.” “Hospital” became spitalia. “Grapefruit” was grayfrou. “Strawberry” and “pineapple” were stromberri and pie-napp La. A sandwich was referred to as a Sam metsa. “Overcoat” became vrecoto. Lake Michigan was called Lakey Michigah. An electric refrigerator was an iceboxi. “Elevator” became eleveta, and the same word was used for the elevated train in Chicago. Overalls were called ovrahalLia. Television, which hadn’t even been invented when Greeks started arriving in the U.S., became televizio. And I love this one, tsintzerelLa, was Gree-lish for “gingerale.” I also heard several words coined to describe the bums on Madison Street: bum-ides, and the more colorful chewntabakia because many vagrants used to chew tobacco and spit all over the stjyeevori, Greelish for sidewalk. Greek and English were often combined by adding the Greek suffix “ides” to an English word to make a new plural noun. For example, lousy peo­ple were known as bus-ides. Then there was the one for which chil­dren got their mouths washed out with soap: son-a va-bitch-ides. The list is endless. It wasn’t until travel to Greece became easier after World War II that tho~e of us who had assumed that our Greelish words were really Greek, realized from the puzzled looks on our relatives’ faces that we were speaking a strange tongue. We also learned that Greeks did indeed “have a word for it”—for the pineapples and straw­berries and other things our parents did not know. I believe that the newly coined Gree-lish words sported a capriciousness that neither their Anglo-Saxon nor Greek equivalents convey. Those anonymous wordsmiths were poets.

The first language spoken by most children of Greek immigrants was Greek. Incredibly, certain words still come to me more easily in Greek than English, especially those I learned while helping Mama in the kitchen. Katsaroba, tigani, and koutala come to my tongue more quickly than “cooking pot,” “skillet,” and “large mixing spoon.” As children, we learned to speak the language of our parents, a language shaped by their lives in the village and by their levels of education. Once they came to America, most Greek immigrants held on to the language they knew. Yet Greek, as spoken in Greece, continued to evolve.

Most immigrants, so distant from their homeland, could not keep up with the subtle changes. My own spoken Greek is a combina­tion of circa 1907 “Mercovouni Greek” and circa 1921 “Piali Greek” colored with Chicago Greek and, of course, English.

I didn’t speak a word of English when I was enrolled in school, and I was completely lost and embarrassed during my first days of kinder­garten. As I learned the language of the United States, I added and mixed English words with the Greek ones I learned from my parents. Of course, I was sent to Greek school. in order to keep their language alive in the new country, most Greek parents tried to send their chil­dren to Greek language schools. Most of them were administered by the Greek Orthodox Church. No matter how difficult it was, parents did their best, even during the Depression, to save the meager tuition for the lessons, plus the streetcar fare when the classes were not within walking distance.

Other words:

p. 249 “Palmalla soap”

While I quietly sat next to Mama on the streetcar, enjoying the subtle fragrance of her Gory face powder and her always clean Palmolive freshness (she called it “Palmalla soap”), fear of arriving at Maxwell Street began gnawing at me.

"millionary" - millionaire

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