I’ve learned —??? many words in many languages but they are not a part of my active vocabulary and often not even of my passive. It’s very easy to say that I just didn’t get enough repetitions.
But what about the counter examples, i.e. those words which have been retained for years with few repetitions, few opportunities to use them? One of those, for me, is from a language I have no background in: Yiddish.
Yet the word balabusta is firmly entrenched in my mind and rolls easily off the tongue. Why? Here’s what happened.
I had been reading Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish and had come across this word, balabusta, which means someone who takes charge and is real expert in some field, usually something homely like in the kitchen.
Around the time I was pondering this word, our neighbors invited my wife and me over for a party. The other guests were like our hosts, Jews from the New York/New Jersey area or maybe Chicago, Kansas City, L.A., etc. but all from Yiddish-speaking homes and traditional Jewish families and communities aka ghettoes.
We had just been introduced around and I was observing the women “bustling” about in the kitchen (probably the English word brought the Yiddish word to mind) and I announced in the general hubbub of conversation, something like, “It’s real nice to see a real balabusta in the kitchen.”
No comic on the borsht circuit ever got a stronger reaction or bigger laugh. The word came out of their collective childhoods, for one thing, but coming from the goy was absolutely hilarious.”Boy, you used that exactly right. Are you sure you’re not Jewish?” and other such jokes and ribbing followed and it was clear they were reacting much like anyone does who appreciates someone unexpectedly knowing something of their home language.
While I can’t think of a specific word like that, I often get that reaction from African-Americans. It seems nothing sets people at ease more quickly than giving the impression you are familiar with their intimate form of communication.
But back to my point: just on the basis of that one experience – about 35 years ago – that word is seared into my brain. I’m not even sure ’memory’ is the correct term here; ’balabusta’ has been acquired.