TOPP MARKS FOR WARPING LANGUAGE © Duncan Graham 2007
Indonesian Idioms and Expressions
By Christopher Torchia
Published by Tuttle (Periplus)
Before the nation's second president was tumbled from power in 1998 he told the people that he was indeed old, toothless, wrinkled and senile.
Skeptics who understood Javanese double-meanings thought this self-deprecation a bit rich, probably designed to release a public outpouring of denial and demands that Suharto stay in office.
Their cynicism was reinforced when the words he used – tua, ompong, peot and pikun became an acronym revealing his true position – on TOPP. No wonder the smiling general didn't step down easily.
For this and many other nuggets we thank New York journalist and former Associated Press' Jakarta news editor Christopher Torchia who worked here a decade ago during Krismon (krisis moneter) the Asian money meltdown.
Make space on your bookshelf because his new book, Indonesian Idioms and Expressions should be rubbing covers with John Echols' and Hassan Shadily's enduring Indonesian- English Dictionary.
Hanging off the broken spine of this heavily used and absolutely essential work are all the words you'll need to understand correct and polite Indonesian. But not the hundreds of slang terms, proverbs, idioms and acronyms that are constantly being invented and discarded – and that Torchia has garnered.
Writing this review offers the opportunity for an exposé.
Deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, clattering away on long-platen Remingtons, are the officers of CONFUSE.
Thanks to democracy and free speech we can now reveal the existence of this little known and most secretive department. Its full name is the Committee to Nonplus and Frustrate Users of Simple Expressions.
It was formed in the early days of nationhood when an excess of public servants was hired. This policy helped disguise unemployment by getting ten people to do the job of one.
It's the ambition of these Indonesian Idles in CONFUSE to reach the creative imagination of the nation's first president Soekarno, famous for now obsolete slogans like Nekad that bundled exhortations to struggle, defend and grow.
His successor Suharto's most brilliantly sinister addition to the language was Gestapu, referring to the Gerakan September Tiga Puluh or 30 September movement (the 1965 coup). You don't need to be a linguist to grab the association with a former European demonic force.
No-one has quite reached that apogee of evil, but they'd doing their best: the soft syllables of Petrus (Penembak misterius, or mysterius shootings) seemed to legitimize the alleged government-approved killing of criminals in Jakarta in 1983.
Torchia's verbosity-detector has quarried granite from the grand old days of total obfuscation: Ipoleksobudmilag (the unity of ideology, politics, economics, society, culture, the military and religion.) Like the ideas, the word is too hard to fracture.
SARA sounds sweet but never trust Miss Communication, the darling of government propaganda everywhere; she's censorious. The word refers to suku, agama, ras and antar-golongan (ethnicity, religion, race and social relations) the four issues that the media and public could not stir.
Now we allegedly have freedom of speech we can all become word warpers. Reversing acronyms and giving everyday terms a new meaning is a popular pastime for amateur lexicographers:
MBA (not a degree, but married by accident, or married but available); MLM (once a selling scheme, now mulut lewat mulut (mouth to mouth), meaning gossip on the grapevine. Absent from the book but often heard at airports when flights are delayed is GARUDA – good and reliable under Dutch administration.
Then there are the proverbs. These don't just express some time-toughened and inherited village wisdom, they also give insights into the culture and the things that matter in daily life.
Pepesan kosong (a discarded banana leaf food-wrap) equals empty promises; nyamuk mati, gatal tak lepas (the mosquito dies but the itch remains) means some things are never forgotten. Seperti katak di bawah tempurung (like a frog under a coconut husk) suggests an insular person.
Seperti kacang lupa akan kulitnya (like a peanut that's forgotten its shell), subtly slandering someone who's rejected his or her origins provides an unforgettable image. Equally digestible is nasi sudah menjadi bubur (the rice has turned to porridge), commonly heard in East Java and probably elsewhere.
Torchia translates this as an inability to turn back the clock. It's similar to the English proverbs of being unable to unscramble the egg or crying over spilt milk. One culture's cuisine based on fruits, nuts and grains – the other on dairy and poultry foods.
The book is a bit of a magpie's nest (or a bower bird's if you're an Aussie) with useful pickings so the browser is constantly rewarded. Most terms come from Java, and the Betawi (the original people of Jakarta) in particular.
Torchia tries to provide the provenance of most expressions though surprisingly offers no explanation for burung (penis, but also bird), a term that foxes many non-Indonesians and often leads to embarrassing moments.
Maybe like the English euphemisms for anything associated with reproduction and defecation the origin has been lost long ago.
One other complaint – and this time serious: No index. The book has been arranged in four sections, Life Forms, Power and Conflict, Tradition and Modern Life. These are further broken down into chapters with open-ended titles like Protest Fever and Family Affairs.
These are arbitrary categories with many overlaps. Cataloguing and indexing are tricky arts that constantly test decision-making abilities; they'd be particularly challenging with such a loosely structured book. But most readers will want to use Indonesian Idioms and Expressions as a reference, and without an index that's difficult.
Or, as some would say: NUTS (not up to scratch).
(First published in The SundayPost 1 July 07)