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!]