"Bāphre bāph!" — my favorite Nepali expression

« previous post | next post »

As a Peace Corps volunteer in eastern Nepal (Bhojpur) from 1965-67, I became highly fluent in spoken Nepali.  I even dreamed in Nepali.

My Peace Corps buddies and I learned Nepali in Columbia, Missouri by the total immersion method, which I describe and demonstrate in this post:  "Learn Nepali" (9/21/16).

See also my comments to "Alien encounters" (9/15/16), especially this one, #7-8, and the links embedded therein.

I became enamored of many Nepali words and phrases, but my favorite of all is "bāphre bāph!", which corresponds roughly to "Wow", "OMG", etc. in English.

I knew how and when to use this expression, and I'm sure that I pronounced it sufficiently well and naturally that no Nepali misunderstood me or even thought that it sounded funny when I spoke it.  But I was never quite sure exactly how to write "bāphre bāph!", whether in Devanagari or in Roman letters, nor did I comprehend the underlying semantics of the constituent morphemes.  Nonetheless, I loved to say it at the right moments, and Nepalis loved to hear me say it.  Saying "bāphre bāph!" in the appropriate circumstances not only felt good to myself, but it also instantly created a bond with my Nepali friends and acquaintances.  Saying "bāphre bāph!" is so satisfying and efficacious that I still to this day spontaneously utter "bāphre bāph!" when I'm alone, and it always makes me feel good.  I highly recommend it to everyone reading this post who is in need of a little cheering up or release of tension (I'll explain more about that in a moment).

"Bāphre bāph!" reminds me somewhat of Cantonese "wah", especially as spoken by my old friend Pinky Wu, which I described in these two posts:

"New Singaporean and Hong Kong terms in the OED" (5/12/16)

"The wonder of Cantonese particles" (5/14/18)

Much as I loved, and still love, to exclaim "bāphre bāph!" with utmost satisfaction or wonderment, when I started to analyze it as a linguist would, there were lots of things about it that puzzled me.  Let me explain why I decided to compose this post at this particular time, since what I have to say in this regard will clarify the context for writing about "bāphre bāph!" instead of just saying it.

My Peace Corps buddies and I recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of our group (Nepal VI).  While we were gathered in Bend, Oregon, several of us said "bāphre bāph!" in response to various unusual circumstances that elicited surprise or astonishment.  We also from time to time send e-mail messages to the group.  I concluded one of them by writing "bapheti baph!" to express my astonishment at the marble inlay in a Sikh temple.

Note that I wrote "bapheti baph!" and not "bāphre bāph!", which is the correct, proper romanization for the expression, and thereby hangs a tale.

In the discussions leading up the writing of this post, one member of the group, Carl Hosticka, wrote "baph A re baph" and Brian Cooke said he seemed to remember Nepalis saying "a-re" as a colloquial usage.  Brian added that it "Would be interesting to know in finer detail how the expression is constructed: the role/meaning of 're' in particular."  I was also wondering about the function of the "re".  I thought that it might be some sort of prosodic filler between the two halves of a reduplicated exclamation.

Boyd Mikhailovsky, the only other member of Nepal VI beside myself who became a linguist, made a very telling observation:  "We knew without looking it up! (Except I thought it was 'bāphade'.)"

Non-specialists write this expression in many different ways.  For example:

"the naked kayaker" (1/19/11):  baph-re-baph

"Nepali – Easy/memorable/funny words":  baph re baph

Looking around for more authoritatively linguistic documentation on "bāphre bāph!", I found this in Ruth Laila Schmidt's A Practical Dictionary of Modern Nepali:

बाफ रे बाफ (p. 534) bāpha rē bāpha , pr. baaph re baaph, INTERJ. exclamation of surprise: baaph re baaph, ek ghanTaamaa usle kati kaam garecha! my goodness, what a lot of work he's done in…

From this we know that the "a" of "bāph" in both of its occurrences should be long.

Herb Rice approached the problem from another angle:  he sought out informants from Nepalis living in Seattle.  Two that he asked both wrote (in Devanagari) bāphre bāph.

It's amazing that Herb was in contact with Ruth Laila Schmidt in Nepal when she was doing research for her dictionary there and then again later when she was in Islamabad carrying out fieldwork on Urdu and Shina (intriguing to me because of its superficial resemblance to the Japanese pronunciation of "China").

Even more surprising is that Ruth Laila Schmidt received her Ph.D. from my department (then Oriental Studies) at the University of Pennsylvania.  She is professor emerita from the University of Oslo and wrote books on Urdu and on Shina!

Herb provided another key piece of evidence when he dug out his trusty old "Meerendonk".  This is the Basic Gurkhali dictionary (Roman script) by M. Meerendonk (1960), a little green leatherette covered vade mecum that we carried with us wherever we went in Nepal.  Meerendonk has "bAph" (using A for "long a") and translates it "steam".  So, says Herb, "bAphre-bAph": an expression of such surprise to suggest the release of high pressure steam?

In support of this interpretation, Boyd provided the following informative entry from Nepālī vṛhat śabdakoś:

bāphare interjection [skt. vapra+re] word used to express fear, surprise, astonishment, etc. "bāphare! there is such a big tiger in the zoo!" — bāph interjection, word used when feeling fear, surprise, astonishment, dismay, etc. "bāphare bāph! I was amazed at their spending on their daughter's wedding!"

I believe that the dictionary Boyd quotes is this one:  Nēpālī br̥hat śabdakōś नेपाली बृहत शब्दकोश (Nepali great dictionary).

Herb connects Sanskrit vapra with Latin vapor, vaporis, masc. noun: steam, vapor, a warm exhalation, etc.  While Sanskrit vapra is normally defined as "rampart; earthwork", etc., there may be something to the connection between bāph[re] and "vapor".

Here I cite R.L Turner's magisterial A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages (London:  Oxford University Press, 1966), Indexes vol. (1969), Phonetic Analysis vol. (1971).  On p. 516b, #9147, Turner lists bāphre, with the definition "exclamation of sorrow", among a group of about half a dozen supposed cognates in other IA languages that mean basically "wretched".  On pp. 520b-521a, #9223, he lists bāph among a couple of dozen cognates in other IA languages that mean "tear, tears; vapor, steam".  Here I feel that I've hit paydirt!

The final piece of evidence I draw from my own patented, totally personal steam release.  When I am under tremendous pressure, I let forth a very forceful hhssssss!!! — expelling a powerful stream of airI almost never make this sound in the presence of other people, but occasionally I will forget and produce it when someone else is around, causing me to be terribly embarrassed and them to be greatly amused.  "Bāphre bāph" is a socially acceptable way to achieve a similar effect — the release of pent-up material energy (in Sinitic that would be ch'i / qì; Japanese ki / Korean gi / Vietnamese khi 氣, which basically means "gas; vapor" (see " Words for anger" [11/18/16] — shēngqì 生气 [lit. "generate qi"']).


For reference only

Etymologists generally are unwilling to trace English "vapor" back beyond the Latin word, which they say is "apparently from a Latin root vap-, perhaps 'to give off steam or vapor,' of unknown origin." (American Heritage Dictionary)  For the etymology of Latin "vapor", Wiktionary states:  "Uncertain, but possibly related to Ancient Greek καπνός (kapnós, smoke) and Proto-Indo-European *kʷep- (to smoke, boil, move violently), via an older form *quapor that eventually lost its velar."  Wiktionary further defines Latin "vapor" as:

  1. steam, exhalation, vapour; smoke
  2. warm exhalation, warmth, heat
  3. ardour of love, warmth

For qì 氣 ("gas; vapor; steam; air; breath; spirit; vital / material energy"), Wiktionary gives the following Old Sinitic reconstructions:


Baxter-Sagart /*C.qʰəp-s/ ("cloudy vapors")    /*qʰət-s/ ("to present food")

Zhengzhang /*kʰɯds/  /*qʰɯds/  

[Thanks to Bill Page and Lynn Knauff]


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 8:15 am

    The OED has an entry for a slang word bobbery, meaning "Noise, noisy disturbance, ‘row’." The etymology is "According to Col. Yule, and others, an Anglo-Indian representation of Hindi Bāp re! O father!, a common exclamation of surprise or grief. Forby has it in 1830 as East Anglian dialect; and it has been plausibly (as to the form) referred to Spanish boberia folly; but the evidence for its origination in India is decisive." Could there be any connection to the Nepali exclamation, or is the similarity accidental?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:02 am

    I suppose that somewhere toward the end of the o.p. I should have mentioned the idiom "letting / blowing off steam".

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:08 am

    Here's the relevant entry in Hobson-Jobson:

    BOBBERY-BOB (p. 101) BOBBERY-BOB ! interj. The Anglo-Indian colloquial representation of a common exclamation of Hindus when in surprise or grief — 'Bāp-rē! or Bap-rē Bāp,' 'O Father!' (we have known a friend from north of Tweed whose ordinary interjection was 'My great-grandmother!'). Blumenroth's Philippine Vocabulary gives Nacú!= Madre mia, as a vulgar exclamation of admiration.

    1782. — "Captain Cowe being again examined . . . if he had any opportunity to make any observations concerning the execution of Nundcomar? said, he had; that he saw the whole except the immediate act of execution . . . there were 8 or 10,000 people assembled; who at the moment the Rajah was turned off, dispersed suddenly, crying 'Ah-bauparee!' leaving nobody about the gallows but the Sheriff and his attendants, and a few European spectators. He explains the term Ah-baup-aree, to be an exclamation of the black people, upon the appearance of anything very alarming, and when they are in great pain." — Price's 2nd Letter to E. Burke, p. 5. In Tracts, vol. ii.

    " "If an Hindoo was to see a house on fire, to receive a smart slap on the face, break a china basin, cut his finger, see two Europeans boxing, or a sparrow shot, he would call out Ah-baup-aree!" — From Report of Select Committee of H. of C., Ibid. pp. 9-10.

    1834. — "They both hastened to the spot, where the man lay senseless, and the syce by his side muttering Bāpre bāpre." — The Baboo, i. 48.

    1863-64. — "My men soon became aware of the unwelcome visitor, and raised the cry, 'A bear, a bear!'

    "Ahi! bap-re-bap! Oh, my father! go and drive him away,' said a timorous voice from under a blanket close by." — Lt.-Col. Lewin, A Fly on the Wheel, 142.


  4. yoandri dominguez said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:40 am

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E0%A4%AD%E0%A4%BE%E0%A4%AA, here is 'vapor' baph, so you was right.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 11:11 am

    From Jamal Elias:

    Incorrect etymology. It is, really without doubt, “father oh father!” Aside from making a great deal more sense, it is a very common expression in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali (“baap re baap”). Don’t know enough about consonant shifts in Nepali, but the other three languages I mention account for a great deal more speakers and the word has nothing to do with steam.

  6. David white said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

    I agree with Jamal. Baba re bap is unproblematic in Hindi usage. It’s simply « father O father »

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

    Entering (progressively) "baap re baap" into Google Translate, having pre-selected Hindi as the source language and "namaste -> नमस्ते" as the input method, the following result :

    baap -> बाप -> "father"
    baap re -> बाप रे – "Oh dear"
    baap re baap -> बाप रे बाप -> "Oh my God"

    However, GT suggest "rai" as the preferred transliteration of "रे".

  8. John Swindle said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

    "I feel so good with my boppity-bop….": Wee Sing covers "Hey, Mr. Knickerbocker."

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    And although not perfectly symmetric, going in the reverse direction from English to Nepali, one gets :

    Oh my -> बाफरे -> Bāpharē

  10. David Marjanović said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

    Wouldn't the expected development of Sanskrit -pr- as in vapra be to -pp-?

  11. Chris Button said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 9:48 pm

    "Uncertain, but possibly related to Ancient Greek καπνός (kapnós, “smoke”) and Proto-Indo-European *kʷep- (“to smoke, boil, move violently”) …

    For qì 氣 ("gas; vapor; steam; air; breath; spirit; vital / material energy") …
    Baxter-Sagart /*C.qʰəp-s/ ("cloudy vapors")

    Ok I'll take the bait. I'm suspicious of Baxter & Sagart's -p coda here (in their book they suggest a relationship with 吸 to account for -p-s > -t-s in 氣 but I'm not convinced since the former is about grabbing/gathering as in drawing water in 汲 as opposed to air in 吸). Furthermore, while a labial association with uvulars is known (and required in OC in that manner as a coda and I believe as an onset too), that is not how Baxter & Sagart treat uvulars in OC and there is no evidence for one in 氣 on such grounds.

  12. Jonathan M Smith said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 11:24 pm

    @ Chris Button On first glance you seem to have a point — but the lack of parentheses around p and of square brackets around q mean the whole form as given is to be the basis for serious comparative and philological work.

  13. AG said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 3:35 am

    mamma mia

  14. Rodger C said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 6:48 am

    Has no one mentioned this?


  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 7:07 am

    From Bijuli Prasad:

    Regarding "re": a "Basic Nepali website ("Memrise") cites "re" in their list of 10 "easy/memorable/funny words": other examples: balabala, chorachori).

    They define "re" as meaning "I have heard…." I'd supplement that by saying "apparently…", "supposedly…", "reportedly…".

    A typical usage which I would hear is:

    "U bholi aunchha re…." ("Apparently he's coming tomorrow….").

    Nepalis often say "a-re" when they insert "re" in conversation. Why ? Again, I'm not trained, but I think Nepalis say "a-re" because it's difficult to speak a word beginning with "r" without uttering a touch of "a", particularly when the "r" is rolled (as opposed to the bland buttery American "r": "errrr"). Try it. In the case of the example above, there's no need to add the "a", since the previous word is "aunchha". In the case of "baph-re-baph," when you say it you almost always insert a slight "a-" after the first "baph." Carl reports that in his district it was:"baph A re baph."

    Again, I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm just remembering a phrase my ears heard often in Nepal — and trying to make some sense of it.

    As to the meaning of "re" when it's inserted in the phrase "baph-re-baph": I have no answer. Perhaps your brother's friend Keshab Sigdel will be able to supply an explanation.

    "Baap re baap": I think Jamal Elias is wrong, when he comments about the "steam" explanation:

    "Incorrect etymology. It is, really without doubt, “father oh father!” Aside from making a great deal more sense, it is a very common expression in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali (“baap re baap”). Don’t know enough about consonant shifts in Nepali, but the other three languages I mention account for a great deal more speakers and the word has nothing to do with steam…."

    I vote for the legitimacy of "steam." I'd say he's wrong because "baph-re-baph" and "baap re baap" are two distinct exclamations: separate, both valid, both utilized. We need each expression — sometimes to exclaim, "Oh father Oh God!", and sometimes ("Baph-re-baph") to express surprise, astonishment, or dismay.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 7:36 am

    @Bijuli Prasad,

    A thousand thanks for your valuable remarks!

    I certainly don't think we should give up on the "steam" explanation. Meerendonk was no slouch and Nepālī vṛhat śabdakoś is authoritative for Nepali. R.L. Turner was knighted for his work on Indo-Aryan, and Indo-Aryan is a lot older than Hindi!

    BTW, the Keshab Sigdel to whom Bijuli Prasad referred is a professor of English at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu who is a friend of my brother Denis.


    Here is a link to a poem by Keshab in which he recalls his boyhood village:


  17. Chris Button said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 8:59 am

    @ Jonathan M Smith

    On first glance you seem to have a point — but the lack of parentheses around p and of square brackets around q mean the whole form as given is to be the basis for serious comparative and philological work.

    My understanding is that the parentheses and/or square brackets are simply supposed to show options/uncertainties within the Baxter&Sagart (if you buy into it) rather than the notion that they should be taken any more or less seriously than anything else.

    For example, they reconstruct 午 as *m-qʰˤaʔ and 五 as *C.ŋˤaʔ without any hedging, but the uvular *qʰ- in the former (I'm ignoring the pre-initials) is impossible since the evidence that they were homophones (both should have *ŋ- as the onset) goes back all the way to the oracle-bone inscriptions (see Ho Dah-an's review of their book for more on this).

  18. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 11:53 am

    From Bijuli Prasad:

    And there's the famous – and often used – phrase: "bholi-parsi….." ("tomorrow or the next day, someday")

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 4:49 am

    "bholi-parsi" — or as we say in Cornwall, "dreckly" …

  20. ajay said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 5:24 am

    "Bapree bap!" is used in Kipling as a general exclamation of surprise and annoyance – "..Well, leave thy elephants unshackled to-night and see what comes; as for their dancing, I have seen the place where — Bapree-Bap! how many windings has the Dihang River? Here is another ford, and we must swim the calves…"

    The story is set in the Garo Hills in NE India.

    My problem with the "release of high pressure steam" explanation is simple: how many Nepalese would be familiar with high-pressure steam? Steam from a cooking pot wouldn't have the same connotation. I doubt that pressure cookers or industrial steam engines were widespread. Really, they wouldn't have encountered high pressure steam except in the context of railway engines. And there were no railway engines in India in 1834, none in Nepal until 1927.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 8:40 am


    Thanks for the nice Kipling quote.

    Who's talking about high pressure steam of the industrial sort or pressure cookers? The ancient Indians and Chinese knew very well about steam, vapors, etc. And I sure can produce a lot of it when I do my hhssssss!!! release.

  22. ajay said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 7:36 am

    Who's talking about high pressure steam of the industrial sort or pressure cookers?

    Well, Herb Rice in your quote is, for one. ""bAphre-bAph": an expression of such surprise to suggest the release of high pressure steam?"

    And there are basically two sorts of steam here. There's the sort that the ancient Indians and Chinese would know about: the sort that comes off the surface of boiling water, for example. That isn't high-pressure and it isn't noisy. It just forms clouds. I am sceptical that you could look at the cloud of gentle vapour coming off the surface of your tea and think "ah! if that were to be penned up at high pressure and then suddenly released, it would make a loud hissing sound that would be quite a good metaphor for surprise!"

    All our English figures of speech that use steam as a metaphor for a sudden release of emotion – "letting off steam", "building up a head of steam", "blowing your stack" and so on – go back to the steam engine era and no further – the time at which people started to become generally familiar with the idea of high-pressure steam as a store of energy that could be suddenly released. I don't see why the same wouldn't be the same for other languages. If 18th century Indians were saying "steam! steam!" as an exclamation of surprise… what image were they trying to summon up?

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 10:59 am

    The ancients knew about the explosive power of steam (it wasn't always "gentle"). Early ceramicists, all the way back to the Neolithic period, from time to time had unfortunate accidents resulting from the explosive release of steam. People boiling water for tea and other purposes were also aware of the power of steam.

  24. ajay said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 11:18 am

    OK. So your argument here is that there are two different exclamations in various related Indian languages.

    One is "baphree baph!" or something similar, which means "Father, father!" and is used to express surprise and dismay. And the other is "baphree baph!" which, although it sounds similar, and has been confused with the first one by lots of speakers, has a completely different derivation; it means "steam! steam!" and is also used to express surprise and dismay, by means of an analogy with ceramic ware breaking in the kiln due to the inclusion of a water pocket, via a Sanskrit word that apparently normally means "rampart".

    Can I suggest another one? The English exclamation "Oh, Lord!" is clearly simply an invocation of the Christian God. But "Oh, Lor'!", though it sounds similar, is not in fact related. It is in fact an invocation of the English common law – pronounced "Lor" due to BrE rhoticisation. And this is obviously correct because I say "Oh, Lor!" in moments of exasperation and I'm an atheist, and so clearly wouldn't be invoking the Christian God.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 11:39 am

    Your first sentence is completely unintelligible, so I can't follow your argument.

    I think you need to go back and reread the o.p., including taking into account the linguistic evidence from Indo-Aryan languages and the lexicographical data in Nepali itself.

  26. ajay said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 4:58 am

    Really? I thought it was fairly plain. Perhaps if you read it again more carefully?

RSS feed for comments on this post