Tootling with vigour

Tootling with vigourI recently read this article in The Telegraph, which assures me that the mystery of what tickles our funny bones has finally been solved. The journal Psychological Science has published a paper by American researchers who claim the things that make us laugh involve “a benign violation of the way the world ought to be.” The study’s co-author Peter McGraw adds, “it’s hard to find a comedy that’s funny cross-culturally because the ways that violations can be benign differ from culture to culture.”

True that. When it comes to cross-cultural communication, humour is definitely the final frontier. I’m loathe to mention the words “Jerry Lewis” and “the French” in the same sentence, because using an obvious cliché is such a lazy way to illustrate a point, but oh, look — I just did it.

There’s one category of knee-slapper that seems to disregard cultural boundaries, however, and that’s the language mishap. Right now, while you’re reading this, locals all over the world are laughing at foreigners’ attempts to communicate in the local dialect.

Several weeks ago I wrote about some of my linguistic faux pas over the years. I’m one of those obnoxious people who always laugh at their own jokes, and I don’t mind telling you that those stories still crack me up. (I forgot to mention the time I went to the hair salon in France and asked for les moches (ugly people) instead of les mèches (highlights). The staff at the salon teased me about that until the day I left the country.)

A couple of readers very kindly shared their own mistakes in the post’s comments section. How did I react when these generous souls exposed their failings for all the world (or at least the handful of people who read my blog) to see? I snorted milk out my nose, of course, because language blunders are irresistibly funny.

Why is this so? I’m a reasonably nice person, yet I once dissolved into helpless laughter when a co-worker exclaimed, “The weather is so strong today! My hat blew off because I had very bad wind.” I think it stems to a certain extent from a sense of superiority on the part of native speakers. If you and everyone around you mastered the basics of a language while still in pigtails, watching an adult crash and burn at something you found effortless is a “benign violation” that can go to your head a little. Add that to the inadvertent double entendres and ridiculous images novice speakers produce, and you’ve got yourself an instant laughfest.

Whatever the reason, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures when I travel is seeing signs that make unintentional mincemeat out of my mother tongue. I wish I’d taken more photos like the one posted above, from Koh Maprow, Thailand. Instead, all I have to offer is this list of signs with delightfully mangled English that I found in an old textbook. May you always tootle melodiously!

In a Bucharest hotel lobby: “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”

In a Yugoslavian hotel: “The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid.”

On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: “Our wines give you nothing to hope for.”

In a Belgrade hotel elevator: “To move the cabin, push button for wishing floor. If the cabin should enter more persons, each one should press a number for wishing floor. Driving is then going alphabetically by national order.”

In a Rhodes tailor shop: “Order your summer suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.”

In an Austrian hotel catering to skiers: “Not to perambulate the corridors during the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.”

In a Bangkok temple: “It if forbidden to enter a woman even a foreigner if dressed as a man.”

In a Norwegian cocktail lounge: “Ladies are requested not to have children at the bar.”

In a Copenhagen airline office: “We take your bags and send them in all directions.”

On the menu of a Polish hotel: “Salad a firm’s own make; limpid red better soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.”

In a Zurich hotel: “Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for that purpose.”

A sign posted in a German park: “It is strictly forbidden on our black forest camping site that people of different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose.”

On the door of a Moscow hotel room: “If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it.”

From a brochure of a car rental firm in Tokyo: “When passenger on foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.”


The textbook is An Introduction to Intercultural Communication: Identities in a Global Community, by Fred E. Jandt. He credits the original article to Jon Carroll, “A Specialist in Women and Other Diseases,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 30, 1980.
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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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3 Responses to Tootling with vigour

  1. Judy says:

    I share your dilema about this “guilty pleasure” in that I love humour based on quirks and mistakes in language and yet don’t want to humiliate those who are struggling to master one which is not their own. I saw some wonderful examples in China which I visited with a Chinese friend and would have loved to have shared them on Facebook, but didn’t do so for fear of offending him.

    • Maria says:

      Judy, I know what you mean. I lead a conversation group every week with recent immigrants, and I never laugh at their mistakes (unless they laugh first.) My post wasn’t meant maliciously; it’s hard enough to learn a new language without having to worry about being made fun of. I actually laugh at my own mistakes way more than I laugh at anyone else’s, and I think that’s what’s made them so memorable to me — I’ll certainly never forget the French word for highlights!

  2. Jodie says:

    I can’t say that I’m talented in the language department. I made some very basic attempts at Spanish years and years ago but I never got very far because I was just too embarrassed. My mum, on the other hand, couldn’t resist jumping in with both feet and decided to show off the one sentence of Spanish I’d managed to teach her by asking one of the bar staff how old he was. Of course, she made that one little mispronunciation and asked him something very different indeed.

    He would have let her get away with it but he saw by the look on my face that I knew what she’d said and he just dissolved into laughter. But my mum was ok with that because there was nothing malicious in it. I won’t apologise for laughing at translation hitches but I’m certainly not going to sneer at them either. However mangled a sign might be, their English is already far better than my command of their language ever will be.

    And personally, I love slightly off translations. One of my favourites is this one:

    “Tender, fragrant grass. How hard-hearted to trample.”

    That’s just so much nicer than “Keep off the grass.”

    Don’t get me wrong, a professional translation company should be used for safety signs and the like but otherwise, a slightly off translation never hurt anyone.

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