Word of the Day: Vraji

Pass the paprika, eh? I started this week with a discussion about one of the most obscure knights of Round Table, Sir Urre of Hungary, right from the original Le Morte d’Arthur, which is a fascinating story that few people know. Then I took my cats to my (Hungarian) veterinarian and after climbing a fence and stealing a few apples (delicious!) off the neighbor’s tree, I noticed she was reading a book (by Salman Rushdie) entitled: “A firenzei varázsló”.

Keeping in mind I speak virtually no Hungarian at all, I was shocked that I managed to understand the title and guess its original English name.

The “firenzei” part is easily understood as Firenze, the Italian (and obviously Hungarian) name for the city of Florence, a place I’ve been to several times. But what about varázsló? Besides the Hungarian suffix indicating it’s female, it’s virtually identical – when you sound it out – to the Romanian word vrajitor.

So is the verb vraji from Hungarian or not? Honestly, I can’t tell. DEX wants to attribute it to a Slavic root but therein lies the complication.

I can’t speak for Hungarian etymology (not yet anyway hehe) but the Slavic root for “vrazha” (modern Russian: вражий) refers to an enemy or an opponent or perhaps foe to use an archaic English word. The more “authentic” word adopted into Romanian from this Slavic root would be vrăjmaș, which is used far less frequently than the more common synonyms inamic (Latin) or dușman (Turkish).

Regardless of etymology, the verb vraji and its attendant nouns (vrajitor, etc) are important because magic and enchantment are cultural mainstays in Romania, from taxing witches to the endless fascination with purple amongst politicians (and certain AP “journalists” hehe).

Literally, vraji means to “bewitch” or “enchant” in English and usually carries a positive connotation rather than a negative one, although not always. In Romanian it can refer to magic or else can be used metaphorically in the more modern sense, similar to English “charm”.

For example, in the song Nu stiu ce vraji mi-ai facut, the title would literally be translated “I do not know what enchantment you did to me” but more figuratively means something like “I don’t know how you won me over (with your charming ways)”. Again, she’s not really complaining or saying this in a negative sense but instead referring to the guy’s “charm”, which in modern English is more related to charisma than it is to actual magic.