One word in Canadian author Louise Penny’s newsletter stopped me cold. She was praising her assistant’s many talents, and included “hooker” in the list. Wait. What? Based on the rest of the list, she must have meant “rug hooker.” But that’s not what came out.
All that took me back to similar inadvertent gaffes.
I know enough German to get by in most situations, and I can mimic accents so well that I sound like a native…until about five minutes later when the grammar trips me up. So, all was going swimmingly in the Munich restaurant, until it was time to call for the check. I turned and called to the waiter, “Herr Obst…” Well, instead of calling, “Waiter,” I called for Mr. Fruit. How embarrassing! Luckily, he responded anyway, having, I’m sure, realized I was a second-rate speaker. We all had a good laugh over my blunder.
The ticket vender at the railroad station, however, was not nearly as understanding. Another trip to Germany where we used trains all the time led to another slipup. We were headed out for a day trip somewhere. Another castle? An old walled town? I don’t remember. But I strode up to the ticket window confidently enough, having done this innumerable times before. A round trip ticket. What could be simpler? Hin and zurück in German. There and back. But what did I say? “Ab und zu.” Which translates to now and then. I immediately realized my mistake, but was laughing so hard, it took a minute to recover and correct. In the meantime, the lady behind the counter stood, stolid and scowling, probably figuring I was absolutely crazy. Either that, or I had no business mauling her language like that. I found it hilarious. She didn’t. I guess I wasn’t cut out to join the diplomatic corps.
A friend was telling me about a friend of hers I didn’t know, other than, he was old. She said, “He passed.” Here comes the faux pas. “Oh, so he re-took his driver’s license and passed. What good news, at his age!” She looked at me as if I’d offended her. Which I probably did. She said, “No. He passed away.” Without thinking, I blurted, “Oh! He died!” In an attempt to recoup, I fumbled out, “Passed away. I’m so sorry. Sorry about misunderstanding too. Sorry, sorry…” It’s an unfortunate shift of language, in my opinion, that the “away” has disappeared. There are so many things to pass that life should not be on that simplistic list. But then, language is in flux, and I’d better learn to adapt!
On a lighter note—no pun intended, as you’ll shortly see—when I was in Ireland, and staying at a vacation apartment, a paper with various instructions sat on the kitchen table. How to use the TV remote, how to turn on the air conditioner, how to light the hob. Wait. What? What the heck is a hob? We checked out after two days without figuring it out. I finally got up the nerve to expose my American ignorance and ask some Irish people, “What is a hob?” They laughed and said, “I guess you guys call it a stove. That one must’ve been a gas hob, if you had directions to light it.” Another occasion for a good laugh, and no harm done.
While half-listening to the radio, I heard the name Laura Loock. Wow! The name of an old friend of my mother who made our wedding cake! All sorts of wonderful memories surfaced. Her expansive kitchen, always full of delicious aromas of baking or cooking. The sound of Morse code coming from her husband and sons’ ham radio shack off the living room. But mostly, her round face, always full of joy. Even today, I can conjure up her contagious laughter, though it’s becoming more elusive. However, I couldn’t understand why someone was talking about that delightful woman so many years later. I honed my hearing and heard instead an advertisement for Laurel Oak, a new retirement community. A case of language playing tricks on my ear. But it was ever so fortunate a trick, as it brought back to mind a woman relegated to those back files hardly ever accessed. A fun diversion.
I love language, even though it’s betrayed me at times. It’s embarrassed me, made me laugh, given me the gift of nostalgia, and sometimes even stopped me in my tracks. All of this reminds me to listen carefully, check my sources, ask questions, and generally revel in the craziness that language offers.
What language are you speaking?