Oy versus argh

While writing an email lamenting that there aren’t more hours in the day, or at least fewer smart people saying interesting things on the intarweb and the literature, I signed off “Oy.”

Then, as I was doing a last editing pass, I thought of changing it to “Argh.” Or perhaps even “Arrrrrgh.”

Which got me thinking about the difference between “oy” and “argh.” If you were translating a Woody Allen movie to a language where “oy” wouldn’t work, could you substitute “argh”?

The basic concept is certainly the same. They both express profound frustration. On the other hand. “Oy” has a resigned feeling to it; it sounds like a sad slump of the shoulder. “Argh” is closer to what a caged animal might say.

Does this reflect a fundamental cultural difference in how people handle frustration?
When I took a Yiddish class in college (because of the many situations the language would come in handy), the professor mentioned that there’s no Yiddish word for “happiness.” “Glicklich” is the closest, which translates literally as “lucky.” Which is to say, in an eastern European shtetl, happiness was the absence of bad luck, not some positive state of happiness. Think of any early Woody Allen character for an example.

Is “oy” untranslatable? What about “argh”? How do other languages handle these sorts of non-verbal expressions of frustration?


  1. #1 Markk
    June 1, 2007

    These things bring up different impressions for me than they used to. Arrgh is piraty to me. I always think “Aye me bucko, Arrg” in a Geoffrey Rush voice or better yet, that actor with the beaded beard from the old Errol Flynn, Tyrone Powers pirate movies. Oy seems Australian or Japanese to me. The Yiddish connotations seem to have been fading in my head. Odd, and I don’t know why there.

  2. #2 Baratos
    June 1, 2007

    I was surprised to find out that booing isnt used in Russia. One line that has stuck with me is how when Krushchev visited the US, he asked one of his friends why all the Americans started to say “Oooooooooo” when he drove past. When Khrushchev figured it out, he spent the rest of the car ride mooing at anyone that annoyed him.

  3. #3 John McKay
    June 1, 2007

    In my own use, “oy” is closer to a heavy sigh than to an “argh.” An “argh” of frustration is completely different than a piratical “arr.” I’m not sure if “argh” has a good Yiddish translation.

    To those not familiar with “argh” I’d refer them to the old Peanuts strips and cartoons. “Argh” is the sound Charlie Brown makes when Lucy pulls the football away. I think Schultz sometimes spelled it “waugh,” but it’s the same cry.

  4. #4 Torbj÷rn Larsson, OM
    June 1, 2007

    In Swedish it could be “┼ňh!”, which is in between “Aargh” and “Oy”. It can be modulated, with emphasis it is definitely in “aargh” territory.

    It is said that a swedish peculiarity is the concept of “lagom”; I don’t know if it is true or not. It means roughly ‘just right’. As in “just the right temperature”.

    But it is more; it also signifies a level which you can be content with.

    But it is even more; it can also signify a level which others can be content with. AFAIK the concept could have originated with the old and dying consensus attitude and morality, meaning that you are achieving a level that is risk free for your self and perhaps isn’t in conflict with others goals, wishes or envy.

    An old timer would probably aim to live his or her life at a “lagom” level. Do I need to say that nowadays we aim to live life to the fullest? ;-)

  5. #5 Ktesibios
    June 1, 2007

    Actually, Charlie Brown’s cry was “AAUGH!” and Schulz was consistent about the spelling. As for “oy”, if there’s a language where it would be unintelligible, I pity the speakers of that language. “Oy” is the perfect onomatopoetic distillation of all the disappointments, frustrations and heartbreaks life inflicts on us.

    Incidentally, “OY” appears to be the equivalent of “inc.” for Finnish corporations. It always makes me do a double-take to see “Genelec OY” on literature from a well-known manufacturer of studio monitor speakers.

  6. #6 Janne
    June 1, 2007

    Ktesibios: it’s completely culture dependent; I have no association of resignation or frustration at all. To the degree I associate to it at all, it’s the British dialectal “oy!”, for “hey!” or “you there!”.

    Onomatopoeia doesn’t move between languages, but needs to be translated just like any other word. One of the things I find fascinating with Japanese is just how much onomatopoeia there is and how tightly integrated it is with the language at large. It’s not just used descriptively a lot, frequently the onomatopoetic word is the _only_ way to describe or express something.

    “Argh” is English only as far as I know. Swedish doesn’t have it (or a close audio analogue); neither does Finnish nor Japanese. In Japanese the closest you get (you don’t really express this kind of feeling or event in this way, normally) would be “AAaaA”, begin high, go lower, then up again, stopping quickly. The connotation is more of a “Oh well”, and usually followed bu “shou ga nai” – “it can’t be helped” or “hey, what are you gonna do, right?”. This is one of the most useful expressions in the language, by the way.

    Another one you can hear in this situation is “Aa~!” – a short, sharp, rising sound you cut off abruptly. It’s more like an expression of surprise or astonishment.

  7. #7 Torbj´┐Żrn Larsson, OM
    June 1, 2007

    “Oy” is the perfect onomatopoetic distillation of all the disappointments, frustrations and heartbreaks life inflicts on us.

    Except that here this onomatopoetry ;-) is perverted or already taken. “Oj” [oy] means roughly “Oops!” in swedish.

    And I do the double-take as well, for two reasons. (“Oj” and “oy”.)

    Hmm, so that must be a real double-take. :-)

  8. #8 Ian H Spedding FCD
    June 2, 2007

    In British English (the only true English) ‘Oi!’ is a sharp exclamation equivalent to ‘hey’ often used to attract the attention of others.

  9. #9 Mousie Cat
    June 2, 2007

    To me, “AUGH,” Aaaargh!, or any similar sound, means pure frustration with something that has just happened and refers only to that particular incident. Whereas “oy” (part of “Oy vey ist mer,” roughly translated as “Oh, woe is me,” I think, means, “This bad thing that has just happened, is how my whole life goes.” So whaddya gonna do? [shrug]

  10. #10 Paul Schofield
    June 2, 2007

    I prefer ‘Gah’ for that meaning. More a sort of resigned pain sort of frustration/anger than being about to explode with fury.

    Of course, I’m probably alone in that.

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