It was my first day in England, and I was looking to see if I could buy a high necked long sleeved t-shirt that in Australia we call a “skivvy”. When the (middle aged) shop assistant approached and asked if she could help, I asked if they had “any skivvies?” Her face instantly changed from inquiring to horrified, and she exclaimed “Oh! We don’t have any of those here anymore!”
Immediately I realised she was referring to a low-paid servant girl, that in the past were commonly used in Britain to do the lowest, dirty work, and were frequently badly treated. Quickly I explained that wasn’t what I meant, that I was looking for a high necked top, but I had obviously offended the poor lady. 🙁
I quickly discovered that there were many differences in terminology (and culture!) between Australia and Britain. Some were fairly apparent and simple to work out, others (like skivvies!) not so much, and it made for some interesting conversations.
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Of course, conversations like this get so much more interesting (and potentially embarrassing!) when learning new languages. A slightly incorrect pronunciation can result in the word produced being, at best, something completely different, and at worst highly offensive!
Another way mistakes happen is when we learn a word that has a different meaning than intended. I recall hearing the story of an exchange student on her first day in Japan asking for a “napkin”, and receiving such horrified looks from the family at the table that she rushed upstairs to find out what she had asked for… to discover she had asked for a sanitary napkin, rather than a serviette! (Glad that wasn’t me!)
Rather amusing mistakes can happen in sign language too. I know a local pastor who had been learning sign language, and was helping interpret so that some Deaf volunteers of the church could hear a visiting speaker. When he introduced the visitor, he wanted to sign where the speaker was from, and not knowing the sign, took a guess and made a triangle shape with one hand to indicate “Tasmania” (because the state has a triangular shape)… again, horrified looks, then highly amused grins, covered mouths and vigorous shaking of heads indicated “that ain’t right!” (and is particularly inappropriate!). Understandable, given that the pastor had been signing “vagina”. :O
It can be terribly embarrassing when we make such a gaffe – but what to do? The only way to learn languages is to try and risk mistakes… and as with learning all new skills, when you try a lot, you make a lot of mistakes! But we learn from the mistakes (we certainly don’t forget that word again!) and our understanding of the language grows.
What’s the funniest story of language misunderstandings you have experienced? Share them in the comments below! (Come on… I need a laugh!)