From akh to uff: 6 ways to express frustration in Arabic

Sometimes a sound is just better than a plain word when you're feeling annoyed

TWAK8E Portrait of thoughtful confused young woman with curly hairstyle in casual blue shirt standing scratching her head and thinking what to do. indoor stu
Powered by automated translation

Yallah, join The National’s Saeed Saeed as he takes a weekly deep dive into the cultural gems and quirks of the Arab world and its diaspora ...

When it comes to voicing life’s frustrations, words are not always enough. Sometimes you need an expression, or even just a sound.

These moments include when you realise you've left your mobile phone in the office upon returning home; or when you hand the taxi driver a Dh100 note, only to discover they have no change.

Such experiences make you want to throw your hands up and just say "arrrrgh". Like most languages, Arabic is also home to a litany of colourful, exasperated sounds that precisely capture the heat of the moment.

On first instance, it’s easy to dismiss them as nothing more than anguished howls – but dig deeper and you will find many of these expressions actually stem from Arabic words.

Below are six common ways of expressing frustration in Arabic, what they mean and when to use them.

1. Uff

This is actually a word with significant meaning: it is used to express displeasure or frustration with a person, situation or task. And while not considered a slur, uff should be used with caution because it's a term mentioned in the Quran in a verse counselling the need for respect toward parents. "Say not to them (so much as an) 'uff' and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word." It is best to use this term sparingly, and definitely never against your elders.

2. Laaaaah

Commonly wailed across Arabic coffee shops during a big football match, this is the region’s version of “nooooooo!”  Used to express frustration or incredulity at a particular situation, the term derives from the first two letters of la’a, which is the Arabic word for ‘no’.

3. Akh

More a sound than a word, this hushed term is handy when one is feeling at a loss over a given situation. It is also a term favoured by students when trying to express how particularly challenging a passage or equation is. People also frequently use it to express hopelessness.

TWAK8E Portrait of thoughtful confused young woman with curly hairstyle in casual blue shirt standing scratching her head and thinking what to do. indoor stu

4. Shuuuuu

This is a wonderful Levant expression used in various situations. Literally, it is an elongated expression of the Arabic word ‘what’ and is used to state puzzlement or surprise.

A few of my Lebanese friends also use it as a greeting, therefore making it an Arabic version of "what's up?" It can also be used in arguments. In that context, when the person says ‘shuuuuu', it is less likely a question, and more a way to end the discussion.

When that happens, it’s best to bite your tongue and take a time out.

5. Yaaaaaaah

A favoured term in the Gulf that comes from one of the most malleable words in the Arabic language. A verb that means all sorts of things such as hey, my and oh, the word ya transforms into an exasperation when its pronunciation is stretched out. Depending on your tone, it can be used to express anger, delight or confusion.

6. Alalalah

One my favourite Egyptian terms, derived from the word Allah, this is similar to saying whoa, in that it can be used to express either disbelief or to tell someone to slow down.

Alalalah is often said in a speedy manner, and more time spent drawling it out determines the severity of the situation at hand.

It has such rhythmic appeal that it appears in plenty of Egyptian pop songs, one of which is Mohamed Ramadan's recent pandemic-inspired trackCorona Virus.