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What's your funniest language faux pas?

by gradinski chai Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 04:58:58 PM EST

Some light and fun evening reading from the diaries ~ whataboutbob

One of the challenges of being in a European environment is the language barrier. Whether we live, work, or travel in Europe, we inevitably face the joy (or for people like me the terror) of trying to communicate across these linguistic divides.

Anyone learning a new language inevitably makes mistakes...that's how we learn. We language learners, however, also provide another valuable social function by providing endless amusement for native speakers as we slog our way through their language.

Having read the funny posts by PeWi, Caldonia, and MarekNYC, I thought we might take up a collection of the funniest or most embarrassing mistakes that we have made while trying to learn another language. Who knows, maybe we can publish a book out of it, make millions, and help pay for this site? :)

So, what's your funniest or most embarrasing language faux pas?

I was getting ready to catch a plane one day and, as usual, I was practicing my Bulgarian with one of the secretaries where I work. She is a sweet motherly-type of  person about 15 years older than me.

So in my mind I thought I told her, "I have to go home to get my suitcase before I go to the airport."

Unfortunately I sorta flipped two sounds in one of the words and said, "I have to go home to pick up my whore before I go to the airport."

She looked at me for a moment and was so tickled that she started crying before she even started laughing.

by gradinski chai on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 10:15:17 PM EST
I was trying to find the computer lab at the university, but instead of asking if there was a computer on this floor, I asked if there was a computer in this country.  The janitor laughed really hard when I said that.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg
by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 11:08:15 PM EST
Are you at Wesleyan?
by Upstate NY on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 02:05:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nope this happened while I was studying in Pamplona.  The joke is that I was trying to say piso which is a Spanish word for floor, (planta is the more appropriate word) but got tongue tied and said pais which means country.  You know the American mucking up the language implying that these backward Spaniards don't have computers, oops....

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg
by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 03:33:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Polish favorite had to do with their dislike of the mandatory Russian classes. The Polish word for 'to forget' (zapomnic) is the same as the Russian one for 'to memorize (zapomnit') So whenever the the Russian teacher would say to the children 'Please memorize this' (Zapomnite eta pozhalesta) the pupils would respond 'we'll forget' (zapomnimy)

Another one from travel in Croatia. It turns out that the Croation word for drink happens to be the Polish word for 'c**t' Creates lots of amusement among Polish tourists when they see the 'tasty drinks' signs and their multiple variations all over the place.

The Czech word for 'love' (laska) means cane or mercy depending on whether the l has a line through it or not in Polish. But in slang it means both 'girl' and 'blowjob' - again lots of potential for problems.

Plenty more like that.

by MarekNYC on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 12:50:47 AM EST
How's this one?

I went to a supermarket in Borgo di Taro, Italy and ordered prosciutto. When the woman behind the counter asked what kind I would like, I suddenly had a brain cramp and couldn't remember the main two kinds of prosciutto. So, I resorted to an old habit which is I began translating from English instead of just speaking Italian. So, I of course asked for "salami duro" (hard salami). The women behind the counter busted out in a cackle that lasted for minutes. Literally. I just slunk away in shame, although I couldn't help laughing as well. (For those of you who don't know, we have two main kinds of salami in the US, Hard and Genoa). The correct word I was searching for in Italian was "crudo" not "duro." Oh well.

My sister-in-law lived in Thailand for five years, and during the first two she always visited the same cafe for her morning coffee with milk. For two years she ordered it at that cafe every morning. Once, when a Thai friend of hers accompanied her to the cafe, she heard my sister-in-law order her usual, only instead of "coffee with milk" she had been ordering "coffee with big heaving breasts." Of course, when her Thai friend burst out laughing, so did all the cafe workers. Oddly enough, they never broke a smirk before. They never corrected her, nor did they embarrass her or ridicule her.

My last incident is a botched pronunciation spoken to my colleagues (academics). For a year I used to leave committee meetings to go to lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was a tapas place. A few times I asked my colleagues if they'd like to come along. No one would ever come to eat with me there. It was very odd. A year later one of my colleagues asked me why do I visit "topless bars" during the school day? This is really a true story.

by Upstate NY on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 02:03:19 AM EST
I love that Thai story. That's a very different collective reaction to the kind you'd get in the western world.

Which is better: tact and a wish not to embarrass the ignorant foreigner, or a good laugh for all and get it over with?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 02:47:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Mine was in my first weeks in Paris, when my boss told me an acquaintance of ours, a very nice, very proper young English girl, was in Paris but feeling a bit depressed.

I said we should both spend some time with her and try to improve her spirits.

Except that moral, masculine, the word I needed, means "morale" or "spirits"; the word I actually used, morale, feminine, means morals.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 02:58:20 AM EST
Another funny from my wife: We had the TallShips in Town the other week and she was doing the Liaison Officer on a Latvian Ship. Picking up a few words she learned the word for bridge: Tilt (sp?), Now living in Newcastle we have a bridge that tilts,

now you can imagine the endless hours of Vodka induced happiness that the simple sentence: "tilt tilts" caused.
by PeWi on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 03:33:26 AM EST
I like making up words that don't exist. So one day I had to give a presentation in my geography lesson and did not remember the word for deficiency. Mangel.
Now I did know what excess meant: Ueberschuss. So, German being a logical language, where there is Ueber-schuss, there has to be Unter-schuss as well. My class was howling.
(ueber-over : unter - under)
by PeWi on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 03:39:00 AM EST
Curiously, I don't remember such a story.

What came closest to it was embarrassing in hindsight, when my parents pointed out an error in my interview in a local paper when in Germany. (I broke the top score record of my school in a national maths competition; but for the record, this was a second-level high school I ended up in instead of gymnasium(=top level), due to my initial lack of language skills; and I crashed out of the competition at county level.)

They asked me about what I want to be when I grow up, and I said 'astrologer'... instead of 'astronomer'. (I was clueless because in Hungarian, the corresponding words don't have the Latin origin like in most other European languages.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 03:42:18 AM EST
My first job in Germany was as a dishwasher at a restaurant-cum-biergarten in, um, the greater Munich region, and one day I needed a new sponge.

Now I was aware that the German word for "sponge" differed from the polite term for female genitals by just the letter "w", but I wasn't quite sure which was which. So eventually, I picked one and walked up to the (woman) boss of the restaurant intending to ask her for a sponge.

What actually came out of my mouth - and within hearing of the entire staff of the restaurant - was "Chefin, haben Sie eine Scham für mich?"

Just like that, the whole kitchen went silent, and everybody looked at me. And instantly I realized - I should have used the word with the "w".

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 04:19:38 AM EST
I have two from recent adventures:
First, I went to a Swiss book store and asked for a book on birds. A vögel buch...but ubeknownst to me, vögel is a slang word for sex (the "f" word version)...so the gal took me to the shelf on birds, and said, "Is THIS what you are looking for?" When I told my friends, they all howled, wondering if she might have wondered if I meant the brown covered book version instead...

Second, I was buying bread, and meant to ask for potato bread with nuts, but instead of saying nuts (nüssen), I said "mit nissen", which means, roughly "with spit, or with phlegm"...the bread lady didn't laugh, but did quickly correct me...my wife had a good laugh though ("eewww!!)

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 04:34:42 AM EST
I can't think of any faux pas which I have made persoanlly since I've been living in Italy as an American expatraite (not bragging, I just can't think of any at the moment).

But there is one hysterical incident which involved  a cousin of mine which might be worth telling.

An Italian cousin who came to visit me in the US about ten years ago. I decided to take him up to the Adirondacks becasue he is an extraordinary lover of nature and espcially the legendary "mountains of America".

He was also very fond of American vulgarities for some reason and developed the aweful habit of contantly saying "Fuck you, asshole" even on the most inappropriate occasions.

So while we were traveling throuhg the Adirodacks, we stopped off at a McDondalds to get a bite to eat. My cousin ordered a hamburger and fries. The girl behind the counter accidentally hit the box of fries with the back of her hand and some of the fries ended up all over the counter. My cousin looked at the fries and shouted, "Fuck you, asshole!!" because that's what he thought Americans always said when somehting went wrong. Obviously, the girl behind the counter was shocked and I stood there dunbfounded and embarrased, not knowing what to say.

by gilgamesh (expat at 6719 dot it) on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 05:11:22 AM EST
I remembered something funny that happened to my father. When we were in Germany, he wroked in one room with a funny German. Once, someone knocked on the door, both of them asked "Who is it?" at the same time - but, as my father was in a funny mood, he asked that in Hungarian. But, to his surprise, so did his roommate!

It turned out that the roommate was actually asking "Who is it" in French, in bad French - he asked "Qui est-ce?" with German accent, i.e. a (French) z instead of s+c.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 06:42:28 AM EST
There is a district in Japan by the name of Kinki. There run the famous Kinki Nippon Railways. The train takes you to Kyoto and Osaka. Enjoy the ride when you have a chance.

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 09:14:14 AM EST
Apparently the same firm makes the Green trains in Boston.  I've loved being on Kinki trains in staid Boston.
by guleblanc on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 04:18:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course, when the conductor in Boston says, "Next stop Alton," make sure you get off the train if you were intending to exit at Arlington.
by Upstate NY on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 04:25:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was in a bar in Nice a long, long time ago when an American walked in and stunned the bartender (and all patrons within earshot) with the declaration:  "J'ai baisé une bière."  (I fucked a beer.)  What he really intended to say was "J'ai besoin d'une bière." (I need a beer.)
by shebeen on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 10:12:51 AM EST
Well in Romania I've had many embarassing moments because of the word for "lemon".

The correct word is "lămâie" which is only slightly different than "lămaie", which is slang for the uhhh, physical evidence of a male orgasm.  So I've ordered drinks "with ice and" the other substance, until I managed to get the hang of emphasizing the "â" sound.

If I'm a little drunk I just say "with fruit" and then they say "with lemon you mean?" and I say "yes" and the problem is solved ;)


Night and day you can find me Flogging the Simian

by soj on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 10:24:12 AM EST
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 10:37:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, we all develop these little tricks to save us from making mistakes. I have several, myself, but fortunately they are all very mundane.
by gradinski chai on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 11:07:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I notice all of these wonderful tales involve more than one language.  I only speak English, but why let that stop me?

I was working for a modem company in California when I took a call for my boss from a guy in Texas.  This guy had a really strong accent -- not the clipped Texas of Bush, but the draaaawlin' Texas.

I got his number and asked for his name and company.  He said his name was Jim from...  Albion?  Odeon?  I could not figure it out.  After the third time I said "I'm sorry could you spell that for me please?"

There was this big long pause.  He covered the phone and I heard muffled whispers and laughing.  He came back and said "Yeah, it's spelled Ahh - Beee - Eyumm."

I realized with horror that I'd just asked the guy to spell IBM for me.  I never lived it down with my boss.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 03:56:34 PM EST
Now THAT story I like ;)

I've never been to rural Texas but I can tell you for sure that parts of Alabama and Georgia speak an extremely heavy drawl that many lifelong Americans can't understand at all.

A friend of mine from New York City and I went to Atlanta to see the MLK Museum but we got there kinda late.  So she asked me if we had time to see the exhibits before it closed.  I went over and spoke to the guard, whom I thought spoke perfectly "clear" southern English.  And after a minute I told him "thanks" and turned to her and said "well you heard what the guy said".

Turns out she hadn't understood a WORD :)

Also reminds me of the time I was interviewing someone after an assault and he told me something like this: "he drashed the dreen ball upside my hea and then pulled uppa skree".

Translation: "he smashed the green bottle into my head and then drove away down the street".


Night and day you can find me Flogging the Simian

by soj on Thu Aug 18th, 2005 at 12:27:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I had a friend from the South who went into a rural market in Arkansas...and saw this huge jar of what looked like eye balls. She asked the lady what they were. She said "bahld panuts". Mine friend...was stunned..."bald peanuts?" The lady shook her head disgustedly...and said, very deliberately: "b-o-i-l-e-d  p-e-a-n-u-t-s"...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Thu Aug 18th, 2005 at 09:18:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Many, many moons ago I was in the Norwegian airforce.  A couple of colleagues met with other officers from NATO-countries - in this specific case - from Denmark.  One of them introduces himself as Lt. Kneppen (which was true) - but in Danish, 'kneppe' means f**k.  He got a slap in the face.
by ask on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 05:23:43 PM EST
In a supermarket in Trier,

"Wo ist die badezimmer?"

I was really looking for the watercloset, but the Americanism was to ask for the bathroom.  I was 16 and fresh into learning the language so i had little of the nuances.

The poor clerk looked at me like I was silly.

by aoxomoxoa on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 09:23:03 PM EST
I said donkey instead of year in French, got mocked pretty bad.
by deano (deanoist at gmail dot com) on Wed Aug 17th, 2005 at 10:00:55 PM EST
I somehow can't remember my personal gaffes. I do remember the fun people had with my German at the beginning of my research stay. I was fine for discussing my work, others work and so on. Practical stuff on the other hand was very rusty, so I'd end up with various convoluted phrases 'triangle thing you hang clothes on' when I wanted to buy hangers, 'thing on the bottom of a room, opposite of ceiling' for floor.

I do remember one from my sophomore year roommate, a Japanese guy who actually spoke excellent English, but when stressed did the Japanese thing of mixing up r's and l's.  In a polisci class he had to deliver a presentation on American elections... you can guess the mistake.  After the first few titters he realized what he was doing and started ad libbing for better effect on the various deficiencies in American erections...

by MarekNYC on Thu Aug 18th, 2005 at 01:49:54 AM EST
I was the youngest member of a design team for a new refinery unit in backwoods China.  We had a business dinner with all the old timers from the Chinese side and our little team.  I had been told the words for waitress (Xioa Jie????? -- been a long time) but got the inflections wrong and called the young lady a chicken.  The whole table nearly peed themselves laughing (in a nice way).  

My wife's favorite was describing herself as "spunky" to a British real estate agent.  That was a real ice breaker!

by HiD on Thu Aug 18th, 2005 at 05:51:21 AM EST
instead of saying, "i envy you." i said, "i WANT you." judging by the reaction of the guy i was speaking with (raised eyebrows, eyes POKING OUT, smile ear to ear), i knew something was amiss... ~
by ptinfrance (contact --at-- whytraveltofrance.com) on Thu Aug 18th, 2005 at 04:54:21 PM EST
my personal favourite: when i went into the local village hardware store -ferramenta- and asked for some thumbtacks - drawing pins in english.
 it came out a mix of mistranslated english and american: 'tacchi a spillo' - literally tacks with a pinpoint - only problem is that phrase in italian means ' stiletto heels'.

i still cringe at that shop....

kidding, we had a huge guffaw about it, and many more since.

similar topic -sorta - italy has a weird way of imitating english/american in a particularly cheesy way, hysterical once you get that,  it's everywhere, tho' i can't think of any examples right now,  duh.

there is the bus company in siena whose name is TR.AIN, which i'm sure is very helpful to the tourists, while giving the merchants another day to sell paliokitsch while aforementioned tourists turn up to the bus station and are staggered to find no trains.

there is a tractor parts factory down the road whose name is MEAT.

you get the drift...

luckily i find this hilarious, as there is an abundance of this through the looking-glass stuff.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Aug 18th, 2005 at 08:17:42 PM EST

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