The first is one word often spoken by A, an Italian-American woman in her fifties, who cooks at the nursing home where I waiter. "Na-uh," she says, responding negatively to comments. The banter is fast and furious when she is working, a torrent of mock abuse that reminds me oddly of the whip and the drum wielded by the captain of Roman galleys. She keeps the air swirling with belligerent comments, whether to amuse herself or prod others, I am not sure.
"That light is broke," says one of the waittresses.
"Your face is broke," says A, dishing up a plateful of ziti.
"Nothin' like yours," comes the feisty reply.
"Na-uh," says A.
The word is a kid word, a combination of "No" and "Uh-uh." In A's mouth it is a sign of play, a lazy backhand to whatever barb she happens to be fending off -- a barb she probably initiated.
In the town paper last week I glanced at an article on skin care for women. In the middle of professional-sounding verbiage, I caught the phrase, "Cleansers help soften ruff skin." Ruff?? Somehow the high pitched yelp of a scrappy dog had sounded, without warning, from the thickets of self-important words. I laughed a good one at the elbow of the pretty girl sounding "ruff! ruff!"