Foreign Language Faux Pas!

Yesterday's post on "Languages 'leak' into each other in subtle ways" inspired a fun comment on mistakes we make when speaking foreign languages...

Anytime you travel and try to learn another language, great stories about embarrassing mistakes are inevitable!

Some are just plain silly!

For example, instead of saying "good afternoon" ("buon pomeriggio") to a government functionary, I once wished him "happy tomato" ("buon pomodoro") !

Then of course others come from the not-always-so-obvious double meanings of words...

A very proper friend of mine once declared that she was so tired because she'd "swept" all evening. Of course, she meant that she'd been housecleaning... but what she didn't realize is that "scopare," or "to sweep" in Italian, is used in a double-sense, just like the English "to screw"! Oops!!

And yet others come from so-called "false friends"... Foreign words that seem similar, but actually mean something totally different!

One of my professors, when he had first come to Italy, was at a cocktail party where they were serving a kind of brie-like cheese. He wanted to ask, "Can you eat the rind?" but didn't know "rind" in Italian. So, he thought, what is a "rind"? Why, it's something that preserves a cheese! Problem is, however, that Italians tend to use the word "conserve" to mean "preserve" in that sense, and instead use "preserve" with a more "prophylactic" meaning.

Yes, that's right... he wound up asking, "Do you eat the condoms?" !

And my all-time favorite of these stories (which, to tell you the truth, I can't really believe is anything other than an urban legend)...

"At an informal get-together, a Dutch woman introduced herself to a British woman. When asked what her profession was, the Dutch woman tried to translate 'Ik fok honden' (I breed dogs) - into English. Unfortunately, rather than 'breed' she used the English vulgar cognate of the Dutch verb "fokken." Calmly, she informed her shocked companion that her working relationship with her animals was extremely intimate."

Not to mention probably caused the person to marvel that apparently the Dutch could even get paid for this! :-)

Indeed, for this very reason, to this day, I never, ever, ever use the word "discourage" ("scoraggiare") in Italian, because it's just one letter off from "to fart" ("scoreggiare") ! Talk about a faux pas!!

What about you? Do you have any good foreign language faux pas stories?? Let's hear them!!

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1 comment:

Tom said...

Mine are still in English, but South African English.

I worked with a South African woman, who, when she would burp, would say, "Sorry, I broke wind!" (in America, that would be farting).

But the other incident was more her not realizing her American husband was having a bit of fun with her with idioms. To make a long story short, there was a guy with a beard that her husband jokingly referred to as "the bearded clam."

So in the middle of a conference call, she made a throwaway reference to "the bearded clam."

I had to take her aside and say, "er, in America, that's a slang term for, uh, female genitalia."

She turned beet red, and promptly went home and slapped her husband.