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Learn everyday Hungarian for an easier stay in Budapest. Lesson 5: Tök

Just as German has numerous expressions surrounding sausages, so Hungarians go big on pumpkins. Apt for autumn, of course, pumpkins, tök, pop up in all areas of conversation. If something’s really good, then it’s tök jó, if something’s of little importance, then it’s tök mindegy and people of varying degrees of idiocy are mocked according to a sliding scale of insults involving tök. This is because tök is also slang for the most sensitive part of the male anatomy – thus engendering its more widespread use.

Around Hungary, pumpkins serve various functions at this time of year. They are made into soup, tökleves, sliced up into bite-sized pieces and baked in the oven, sütőtök, and, a much more recent phenomenon, cut into face shapes for jack-o’-lanterns.

Linguistically, however, the humble pumpkin pushes the envelope where slang is concerned. Listen carefully on the tram and you’ll hear many a Hungarian exclaim, ‘Az tök jó!’, ‘That’s great!’ or, not so great, ‘A tököm tele van!’ ‘I’ve had enough!’. Here, though, the discourse does not concern the bright orange harbingers of Halloween but rather the Hungarian slang for testicles. The pejorative verb tökölni almost literally translates as ‘to d*ck about’ in English.

In similar vein, idiots are treated to a panoply of insults for which the word tök is weaponised. In this case, pumpkins sometimes come back into the picture. If someone is tökkelütött, he has literally been hit with a pumpkin (as opposed to a man’s family jewels) and is, plainly, a complete moron.

Other uses of tök to indicate someone else’s stupidity or poor character link more with the slang use of the word. If you call your boss a 'pumpkin head' in Hungarian, be prepared to peruse the Situations Vacant page the following week.

To confuse the issue, or perhaps underline it, tökéletes derives from the verb of Finno-Ugric origin meaning to carry out something to perfection, tökél. Therefore, Hungarians may describe a situation as being tökéletes with no reference whatsoever to pumpkins or testicles. Unless that's what they were thinking of when they said it. After all, what could be more perfect than a bowl of pumpkin soup in autumn?

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