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Learn everyday Hungarian for an easier stay in Budapest! Lesson 8: Sajnos

Seek sajnos in the Hungarian-English dictionary and it offers you a handful of options all based around the concept of regret. All sound like the start of an impersonal letter you may receive from your bank were you to ask for a loan of improbable proportions. ‘Unfortunately’, ‘sadly’, and so on, words rarely used in everyday English conversation. Yet, in Hungarian, sajnos is not just something you overhear frequently, it’s an entire mindset, an expression of helpless desperation, in a world where there may just be a solution to the problem. Somehow. Somewhere. Just not here. Sajnos.

Urban myth has it that somewhere in Hungary there was a sajnos-saying competition. Competitors had to express the word sajnos (‘shy-nosh’) with such pathos, it was clear that the situation evoking such profound regret could never, ever, be solved, not for all the tea in China.

Although this event may never have happened, unfortunately, urban myth always contains more than a grain of truth. In sajnos veritas.

For the whole point about sajnos, essentially, is that it’s used in circumstances which could have been foreseen reasonably easily, but nobody bothered to do anything about it.

The most common use of sajnos occurs in shops. In league with its close associate, nincs (‘We don’t have any’), sajnos expresses the fact that a store doesn’t have the most obvious thing you’re looking for. ‘It’s baking hot. 35 in the shade. Do you have any cold beer?’ ‘Sajnos nincs.’

In this way, Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch – in which Michael Palin is pathologically incapable of selling John Cleese any cheese – hits closer to home than the comedy team’s infamous Hungarian phrase book, actually based on a hilariously inaccurate Portuguese-English one from the 1800s.

With malls, chains, globalisation and ever more young Hungarians living in the West and returning to set up their own businesses here, there’s now a contemporary logistic to stock and the responsibility for refreshing it. Old stores are fading from the cityscape and diminishing with them, the potential for hapless Hungarian conversational exchanges. Sajnos.

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