Mastering the subtle insult

My friend, Sudi, loves American idioms, American rock, American subway sandwiches. But when it comes to insults, nothing in the English language can match the Indonesian tongue-in-cheek proverb. Of course I wouldn’t know that by listening, since I’m at the proficiency level of a first grader and the nuances of the language are lost on me. But Ketut mumbled something the other day about looking at a hill after we had been discussing a mutual acquaintance and I asked for clarification.

“What did you say about a hill?”

“I say, to look at hill from far not same to look from close.”

“Were we talking about hills?”

“It tell about people. When you first know somebody maybe you think good. Later you know him long time you think, maybe not so good. Same like look at Mt. Agung from Ubud. Beautiful. Then get very close. Just many many stone.”

“Wow! I love it! Are there more like this?”

“Ya. One say about squirrel. Very clever squirrel jumping sometimes fall down. It mean people not become…sombong…what in English?”

“Arrogant! Don’t be arrogant, like we say, pride goes before a fall! More! More!”

“Tall tree is first to fall down in storm.” He thought for a minute then said, “This also about arrogant.”

“Yes, tooting your own horn or being big-headed.”

He told me about water in an elephant’s ear and tamarinds in the same pot with salt. You had to be here.P1100567

But that made me curious and I set about finding other wisdoms of Indonesia. This is a small sampling of parables that are poetic and true:

Whatever ground you stand on, hold the sky high.
Meaning: Wherever we live, we must observe the local customs.

The will of the heart is to hug the mountain, but the arm is not long enough.
Meaning: A person who does not have enough resources to accomplish his goal.

If you give your liver, they ask for your heart.
Meaning: If someone receives a favor, they will request a bigger one in the future; taking advantage of kindness.

Head can be heated but heart must stay cool.
Meaning: A dispute can only be resolved by discussing the problem openly and rationally.

Throw a stone but hide the hand.
Meaning: Someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility for his/her actions.

The tongue indeed has no bone.
Meaning: To describe, with disgust, a person who has no principles, who keeps changing what he/she says, who is a liar.

The rice has become porridge
Meaning: Describe with regret, something that has already happened and is irreversible. No use crying over spilled milk.

An empty drum gives loud sound.
Meaning: A person who talks a lot but knows little.

There are hundreds like this in the lyrically beautiful language of the islands. I think part of my delight upon hearing them is that they indicate a way of thinking that is expressed with different words but similar meanings to the ones I grew up with. And when my friends speak English, which is their third language after they first learn their native Balinese, and then Indonesian, they structure their conversation with words that mean what they say but don’t always translate their precise intention…for example…

I was walking along the path to the street and Gede was coming from the other direction. When we got close he yelled out, “You look young from very far away.” What could I say? I laughed at his innocent insult, which was absolutely intended as the highest compliment, and thanked him.

I laughed because I love words. I love them in English and in Indonesian. I love them in poetry, prose, conversation, or unintentional insult. I love them butchered, filleted, and served up half-baked.  But I especially love them when they say something old in a surprising new way.2014-02-27_00-01-56

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sageblessings
    Nov 09, 2015 @ 08:41:18

    Delightful! Thank you. It’s clear you love words. I say that same thing at least once a week. I love words too. Ketut is maturing into a strong confident man as seen in his photo.



  2. Carol Frei
    Nov 09, 2015 @ 19:40:26

    This was a fun one!



  3. thephotographyconfidential
    Nov 10, 2015 @ 10:29:24

    I guess you would approve my decision of starting a blog then! Haha . Good luck with your self-discovery , and happy travels!!

    Liked by 1 person


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