To stoic Norwegians the expression signifies strong feelings—from abject despair to unbridled joy, from dejection to unabashed playfulness.
If the puppy could speak, she or he would say “woofda.” Look in the eyes of the frustrated and exhausted pup—that’s uffda!
But there’s more.
My introduction to the word occurred when I was nine years old and living in Drammen, Norway, with my brother and parents. Elsa’s Bakeri, a frequent stop on my way home from school, was a bakery owned by Elsa Nielsen, a spinster, who married ingredients into mouth-watering pastries. Skolebrod (school bread), my favorite, provided many pleasure-filled uffda moments for me.
On one occasion, when Elsa’s arms were wrapped around two trash bags, I surprised her, causing her to drop the bags. “Uffda!” screamed our family friend as coffee grounds and eggshells spread across the floor. She turned toward me, saw my startled expression then did as she’d always done, reached into her baker’s display case, removed a warm skolebrod, and while placing it and a napkin in my hand, she allayed my concern that she’d sworn at me by introducing me to the meaning of uffda.
For a time, its use, in place of “real” swear words, gave me a pass with my parents, who disapproved of cursing in any language. I liberally used the word to my advantage in other settings as well—expressing chagrin at my mistakes and miscues or spontaneous joy for pleasure and success—all without fear of reprimand.
Later, in adolescence, a disturbing uffda moment occurred.
Mr. Vlosky, my high school driver’s education instructor, was a humorless man—I thought—one who took himself and the course he taught too seriously. I, on the other hand, displayed arrogance and disregard for the “rules of the road” and his instruction—he and his course were beneath me. One day, during a “behind the wheel” session, I decided to show my disdain for both by pressing the accelerator to the floor to pass a slow moving trash truck on a steep hill. As our sluggish Ford crossed the double yellow lines, Mr. Vlosky jammed his foot on the passenger-side brake pedal. I yelled, “Uffda,” and he shouted, “Pull over.”
“You don’t have to like me or my class,” he lectured in his high-pitched voice, “but you do need to obey the rules of the road, and I’ll not tolerate foul language.”
I deserved and received a “D” in his class.
Recently, while enjoying a quiet, scenic drive home from my Middlebury office, I pulled up behind a blue Subaru stopped at an intersection. Before the light turned green my blissful gaze left the setting sun above the Adirondack Mountains to the license plate in front of me—UFFDA. I drove on and began to reminisce. Fond memories and an embarrassing experience occurred to me—warm pastries coupled with a single recollection of a bigoted high schooler, who thought he was better than his Polish driver’s education teacher.
I smiled as enjoyable, kaleidoscopic thoughts of school days in Norway captured my attention. I thought of Elsa the baker, Mr. Vlosky the teacher, and the beleaguered, cute puppy whose quandary had captured my attention enough to make the snapshot one of the desktop background images on my computer.
Appreciating the importance of the moment more than the reality of it occurred to me as my eyes left the personalized plate to gaze upon the eastern slopes of the mountains.
Elsa baked fabulous pastries that, as my grandfather would say, “Tickled my palate.” More than that she was a caring soul who “took me under her wing,” an American boy in a strange, wonderful country, and made me feel welcome.
Mr. Vlosky, who received the brunt of my bigotry and inexcusable self-importance, taught me more than how to drive a car. The lesson, on the surface, had to do with adhering to the “rules of the road,” but the importance of the moment was that crossing lines into mean prejudice had no place in my life. It took me until the week before my high school graduation to recognize that and summon the courage to face him, but I did. He graciously accepted my apology, and then to my surprise extended his hand and said, “Uffda, you’ve passed a bigger test.”
I’m guessing that the beguiling puppy found its way down the stairwell and learned about both reality and the importance of the moment.
Uffda! — a reminder of Tolkien’s words: “…not all who wander [off course] are lost.”
There are times in my life when I falter, get “in” over my head, make and acknowledge egregious mistakes only to cry out, “Uffda!” Then with perseverance (whose source often baffles me) and hope (equally puzzling), I resume the journey to arrive at my destination proclaiming, “Uffda!”
Or as Strider (Lord of the Rings) jubilantly proclaimed: “A light from the shadows shall spring!”