Back when I dragged a toy duck


Welcome to this week’s SoundCzech, our weekly language programme helping you learn Czech phrases with the help of song lyrics, and starring this week the legendary Jaromír Nohavica. Regular listeners may be wondering why we so frequently use the songs of music of Nohavica. The answer is that not only does he write wonderfully entertaining songs, but they’re chock-full of homey idioms from the times when he was dragging a toy duck in Moravia – that is, when he was a young fellow in Ostrava. Have a listen to this song, Když jsem tahal kačera, “When I used to drag the duck” – or drake, really, but why get technical.

Když jsem tahal kačera
Ostrava byla liduprázdná zvečera
v devět večer všichni spali
bo se ráno vstávalo
socialisticky se pracovalo

When I was a kid (or used to drag a duck) Ostrava was deserted by the evening, everyone was asleep by nine o’clock because they would be up in the morning, working “socialistically”. As far as dragging a duck (drake) is concerned, my Czech colleagues have advised me it’s not as random as it sounds: just imagine a kid pulling a toy duck on a string. So if you’re telling a younger person about something that happened when they were still a rug rat, an ankle-biter, a stripling you could say to bylo když jsi ještě tahal kačera, “that was back when you were still puling the duck.

Another seemingly nebulous way of referring to things that came before you would be to say to jsi byl ještě na houbách– that was when “you were still mushroom picking”. It might not seem to make much sense, but leave it to mushroom-loving Czechs to find an analogy with mushroom picking in lots of phrases. To jsi byl ještě na houbách however refers to something that was “before your time” altogether, before you were born. And if you’re sure you were never picking mushrooms, even metaphorically, you can say “to jsem byl ještě na malinách” - that was before my time, or, “when I was still picking raspberries.

The naïveté of young people then is the subject of an idiom or two, maybe most often with references to milk dribbling down someone’s chin: “mléko mu teče po bradě”. One famous innocent is the puppet figure Hurvínek from a popular children’s theatre ensemble, whose simple-mindedness gave the phrase vidět něco jako Hurvínek válku: “to look at something the way Hurvínek looks at war”.

But now I’ll leave you with more of Nohavica pulling the duck, back when Gagarin was flying around the world, and they had to look at books about ancient Greece to see a naked woman.