The wedding of my kitchen, and other embarrassing language mistakes

The wedding of my kitchen, and other embarrassing language mistakes

He really did smell good! Photo © Bev Lloyd-Roberts

Yesterday, my lovely cousin Stella Maria married James, her longtime beau. The wedding was low-key and fun (just like the couple themselves), and as entertaining as you’d expect when two musicians throw a party and invite their talented friends.

But this post isn’t actually about yesterday’s nuptials. The segue from that subject to the embarrassing language mistakes of the title is simple: Thinking about Stella and James reminded me of the time I was telling my Bordelais friend Jean-Charles about another cousin’s wedding (my mother is Irish, so I have cousins galore), and he cracked up because I’d confused the French word for female cousin – cousine – with cuisine, which means kitchen.

In my personal struggle with open-mouth-insert-foot disease, that was a fairly minor gaffe that barely warrants a mention. I’ve managed to embarrass myself all over the world with language faux pas, even in my native tongue.

I was once making small talk at a staff meeting in Australia when I commented that I’d been sitting on my fanny all day. I knew instantly that something was wrong by the sudden shocked stillness that settled over the room. “In Canada, fanny means butt,” I said quickly. “In Australia,” my friend Lyndall replied dryly, “it’s a little further around.”*

The very next day, I was in a pub with my Aussie friends when I exclaimed that I’d be rooting for Australia in the next Olympics. Suddenly, all the men wanted to buy me a beer.**

Mandarin is an easy language to study in many ways (no verb conjugations, no tenses, no articles), but any gains in the ease-of-learning department are more than offset by its tonality. Four tones – high, rising, falling-then-rising, and falling – are the reason Mandarin speakers often sound like they’re yodelling in Chinese. My organs of articulation just aren’t supple enough to pull off the contortions Mandarin requires, and after two hours with my extraordinarily patient tutor, Lihong, both my tongue and my brain would be numb.

After several months of practice, just when I thought I was actually making progress, Lihong broke it to me gently that I’d been using the wrong tone on the word jiao. Turns out that when I was encouraging Singaporeans to call me Maria – qing jiao wo Mali – I was actually inviting them to foot me Maria. After my Australian experiences, I was worried that this might be a double entendre, but Lihong assured me that I wasn’t saying anything rude, just stupid.

My biggest blunder – the one that will live on in family lore for generations to come – occurred when I was an au pair in France.

Before I begin, let me just mention that many people are under the assumption that all Canadians are fluently bilingual. Believe me when I say that nothing could be further from the truth. When I arrived in France, I was an Anglophone with high school-level French, a minimal grasp of the subjunctive mood, and a rudimentary vocabulary that unfortunately didn’t include the French word for puppy.

A puppy, however, is what my little French angels wanted. Off we went to a nearby farm where a litter had been born the month before. There was a sign outside the farmhouse that read “chiots à vendre,” and, always eager to improve my language skills, I pointed to the word chiots and asked what it meant. “Baby dogs,” le garçon told me.

After much arguing, name-calling, and generally appalling behaviour, the children chose the poor dog that would be tormented by them for the remaining fifteen years of its life. He was adorable, and I scooped him up to give him a break from the ear-pulling hooligans in my charge. Madame Farmer smiled at me as I nuzzled him, inhaling his sweet puppy scent. “You like him, hein?” she asked.

I nodded. “I love puppies,” I said, proudly using my newly-acquired vocabulary. “They smell so good.”

Her smile turned into a look of such violent distaste, I involuntarily took a couple of steps backwards. Maman gave a strangled laugh, shoved the cheque into the woman’s hand, and propelled me toward the car where the kids were waiting. “What?” I asked, utterly bewildered. “What did I do?”

“Let’s go,” Maman gasped, tears streaming down her cheeks. She gunned the engine and tore out of the laneway. Once Madame Farmer had receded into the distance and Maman had stopped howling with laughter, she told me where I’d gone wrong.

The word chiot is pronounced shee-YO, but can I please say, in my own defence, that I’d never heard it spoken; I’d only seen it written on the sign. My fatal error was pronouncing it with a hard “t,” so it sounded like shee-YOT. Which means shit. I’d actually said to the woman, “I love shits. They smell so good.” No wonder she looked so aghast. I’d just confessed to a sexual perversion.

How about you? Any language mishaps to share? Please leave your comments below – I promise to laugh with you, never at you!

* In Australia, fanny is female genitalia. **And rooting is sexual intercourse.

[Edited to add: I came across “You Think You Can Speak English — Until You Arrive in London” in The Globe and Mail recently. Glad it’s not just me who suffers from Open Mouth, Insert Foot disease!]

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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13 Responses to The wedding of my kitchen, and other embarrassing language mistakes

  1. naomi says:

    hysterical. just spit out my beer …

    I have no language mishaps … mostly because I am not going to attempt to learn Hindi. BUT I do get a kick out of “same same” words that mean a totally DIFFERENT thing in different countries!

  2. Shelley says:

    Your post brought back some memories of my own ‘fun’ with language 🙂

    With youthful exuberance in the Spanish language, while shopping with my familia in Mexico at Sanborns, as we passed the jewelry counter I exclaimed “quisiera un collar de concha de puta” instead of “puca” (small flat white shells) and felt that long, silent pause as the entire store stopped all activity to hear the echo of my words before mamá burst into laughter and papá was wiping the corners of his eyes…

    while staying in France I stopped at a fromagerie for some goat cheese to go with the fresh baugette I had just purchased…upon entering I asked the older woman behind the counter for a small amount of “fromage du cheval” and was very puzzled by her reaction…when she muttered ‘mais non, madamoiselle’ and tut-tutted seemingly aghast at my simple request, I insisted that “fromage du cheval” was very delicious ! she called to the cheese maker in the back to come speak to me, and he was rather abrupt in ushering me out the door…it wasn’t until I had walked a block or two that I realized that I had asked for horse cheese (cheval) instead of goat (chevre)

    I had a similar encounter with the word fanny in Australia 😉 I also compounded my error by telling the story of what occurred (because I had noticed the extreme reaction on the part of the furniture salesman when I used such an innocuous word) on various occasions to groups of Australias who laughed with great humor, and it was months before someone took me aside to tell me exactly where an Aussie fanny was located.

    Thanks for the chance to laugh again…I’m certain there are other, less memorable errors I’ve made. And I’d do it again 🙂 there is a certain ‘risk’ in practicing the languages (even ‘English’) that I’m learning, though I’ve found Laughter to be the most universal language of all.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for my morning laugh, Shelley – I’ll be giggling about fromage du cheval all day now. You’ve got a great attitude about language mishaps! The way I see it, it’s a fair trade-off: a little mortification now provides us (and everyone around us) with entertaining stories for years to come. 🙂

  3. Judy says:

    My French pen friend’s family laughed for the whole 2 weeks I stayed with them as a teenager when I told them them I was going to wash my “chevaux” (horses) instead of my “cheveux” (hair) one evening.

  4. thewondermya says:

    hi maria

    i’m a french native speaker and sometimes go creative with english. one of my best is two at once. my bf at the time laughed himself to tears.
    Really like your post, keep writing !

    • Maria says:

      I like that: creative. That’s how I’ll be referring to my language mistakes from now on. 🙂

      Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll keep writing because I can’t seem to stop. LOL.

  5. SO chiot is “puppy?” I didn’t know that… I would have said “les petites chiens.” Better safe than sorry…and they probably still would have laughed at my obvious “American-ness” LOL

  6. femforchangenow says:

    I took German for four years in high school and am now taking it again in college (there’s 5 years between my fourth year and now). I took the advanced placement test in high school for German, in which there is a spoken portion, of course. After hearing the test narration say, “I have lost my keys, will you help me look for them.” I responded rather nicely with suggesting places to look for them. It wasn’t until after I had finished recording that I realized I had suggested looking in the cake-“kuchen”-rather than the kitchen-“Kuche.”
    More recently, after a long day, our class got talking about where they grew up. I mentioned that I had lived in another state for almost twenty years, which prompted my professor to ask my age (since most others in the class are 18 and 19), to which I responded 73, instead of my actual 23. It got big laughs, especially from myself and the TA who remarked that I looked great for my age!

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