Loving language as I do I am always fascinated by the coincidences that lead to surprising miscommuncations between different languages. The examples below actually happened to people I know. If you know of any other I’d love to hear them.
When my Italian grandmother first came to Australia she knew very little English. It must have been a bewildering time, surrounded by writing that looks like it should be understood, half understanding small parts but with all meaning absent. She went out on the town with a friend one day and was surprise by a sign that repeated over and over again in the shop windows.
“Very odd.” She said to her friend, “Is there something wrong with this place that they need so much salt?”
“Salt?” Her friend looked at the shops and didn’t understand until she read the large signs in the shop windows, all proclaiming the yearly sales. Sale in Italian, is salt.
COON is a very well known cheese in Australia. I think their advertisements said at one time it was Australia’s favourite cheese. It is iconic, up there with Vegemite…actually I think COON and Vegemite were a staple in our house for many years. Their bold blue packaging is very distinctive on the dairy shelves of the supermarket which was certainly a surprise for an Iranian friend at her first visit to a supermarket. In Farsi coon is a VERY crude word , a long way from the comforting family favourite.
My sister was curious about two Chinese girls regular morning greeting at work. They would both hold their hands up in a grasping action while saying “mornin'” to each other. She finally asked what’s with the hands, the two girls laughed and one explained.
When here mother was new to the country, knowing very little English she would be constantly violated by the words of her neighbour at the start of everyday. No he wasn’t a raving racist or suffering Tourette’s, he just greeted her with a friendly, “mornin'”. Only problem is in Cantonese mornin’ sounds a lot like “Mau nin” (or something like that) which loosing translated means “grab breasts”. Man, it’s amazing she didn’t call the police!
But why a Beaver?
Of course you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own language to have a miscommunication. My father and his girlfriend were watching Naked Gun recently. It’s one of my dad’s favourite movies and he was giggling away at all the double entendre. They were watching the scene were Leslie Nielsen’s character watches and Priscilla Presley climb a ladder.
“Nice beaver.” He says in admiring tone of voice.
“Thanks, I just had it stuffed.” She replies handing down a massive stuffed beaver.
Dad’s girlfriend turns to him and says, “I know that’s suppose to be funny, but how?”
Embarrassed, Dad stumbled over an answer finally deciding on, “It’s what American’s call the Map of Tasmania.”
“Oh.” She said, thought for a moment and replied, “But why a beaver?”