How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Love, L.A. style: Mom, Dad, I'm dating an odar

Photo by qthomasbowe/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A great word came up last night during a lively public talk at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum, where I moderated a panel on interracial and interethnic relationships. And while its origin is Armenian, it wound up a part of the conversation among all the couples there.

One of the panelists, novelist Aris Janigian, brought it up first. He's Armenian American; his wife, InSun, is the daughter of Korean immigrants. When it was time to tell his mother about her, he had to break the news that his beloved was an odar, an Armenian term that sounds curiously like "other," which is more or less what it means. And after he told his story, other panelists began applying it to their own stories with their partners: the non-black odar wife, the non-Latino odar husband, and so forth.

Many cultures have terms to describe outsiders, but since odar is the word of the moment, Multi-American contributor Lory Tatoulian has kindly provided us with an extended definition:

The word odar is used a lot by Armenians, it means stranger or foreigner, and in the vernacular, it identifies the non-Armenian.

Example: “Oh did you hear, Ani is dating an odar!” OR “Hey mom, I’m going out with Armen and Ara tonight, and some other odar friends.” OR “Bro, don’t take your car to an odar mechanic, they’ll charge you so much more to put new rims on your Mercedes.”

There is an uncanny similarity between the English word “other” and odar, and when tracing its etymological roots, the word odar comes directly from the Armenian language branch – linguists classify Armenian as an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. But I don't see it as a branch, extending from the trunk alongside other language branches, but rather part of the roots of the tree sinking deep into the earth.

Odar is not a bad four-letter word, and doesn’t connote racism or prejudice; rather it’s just a tool for parents to classify who you should and shouldn’t date.

That being said, Armenians constitute one of the biggest diasporas in the world, meaning that there are many more Armenians living in odar lands rather than Armenia, Los Angeles playing host to most of them. Therefore, being able to acclimate, acculturate, and assimilate with odars is second nature, and the word became functional in helping Armenians identify other Armenians in the maelstrom of humanity.

Even though odar is used lightly, underpinning the word is a feeling of anxiety and the subconscious, and very real threat of extinction: Enduring 3,000 years of foreign invasion, a genocide and a scattered diaspora, the word odar, just like the “IAN” and “YAN” suffix at the end of Armenian last name, has played more of a role in preservation rather than isolation, helping keep together a people whose population has ebbed to 6 million and whose language has been included in UNESCO’s world’s atlas of endangered languages.

You don't have to have much Armenian in you, however, to be considered Armenian. We like to think that Princess Diana, who was 1/64 Armenian, was not an odar.

Read more about Aris and InSun Janigian's Armenian-odar marriage in a Q&A from earlier this week, as well as Q&As with Terry Dennis and Gabriela Lopez de Dennis, and with Julian Bermudez and KPCC's John Rabe. Raw audio from the panel can be heard here

Expect more highlights from the conversation on Monday. 

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