Shoshana Kordova

When we say “hear, hear!” in English, what we mean is “I concur!” In Yiddish, though, “here, here, here!” (“at-at-at”) has become the Hebrew “ototo” (oh-toh-TOH), meaning “right away.” Ototo is more immediate than “now” (“akshav”) and arguably even than “immediately” (“miyad”). It’s more like “any second now.”

Yiddish, and by extension Hebrew in this case, aren't the only languages that repeat the same word to emphasize that something or someone is really, truly on the way. The repetition of “here” in the original Yiddish phrase reminds me of the rather laissez faire approach South African English takes to the near future.

If you’re planning to meet South Africans who say they’ll be showing up “just now” or “now now,” don’t expect to see them walking through that door any time soon, since the meaning of those terms is akin to “later” or “eventually.” If you do want something ototo, you’d do best to make it clear you want it neither just now nor here, here, here, but rather “now now now,” which, unlike the other terms, actually does mean “now” to South Africans.

Because “ototo” sounds and looks similar to one of the Hebrew words for car, “oto” (OH-toh, as in “auto”), some car-related companies incorporate it into their names. The website Ototo Kids, for instance, sells a CD marketed as an educational device for children that features a small green car. There’s also Autoto New Auto in Petah Tikva, which sells vehicle accessories.

So the next time a whiny kid in the backseat asks if you’re there yet, you can respond by saying you’ll be there “ototo” -- even if what you actually mean is “just now.”

To emphasize urgency, put your linguistic pedal to the metal. Credit: Reuters