The Compulsive Copyeditor

September 15, 2009

Interlanguage Land Mines

Filed under: other languages,translation — amba12 @ 5:40 am

Gestures don’t travel well between cultures.  If you flash a Brazilian the thumb-and-forefinger circle that to us means “A-OK,” he’ll punch you out for calling him an asshole.  Japanese people appear to waving bye-bye when they’re actually saying, “Come here.”  More examples invited.

The same is often true of words, to mortifyingly comical effect.  In English, “mist” is a wistfully romantic word.  It enshrouds the lighthouses and lonely sea widows on the covers of romance novels, bosoms heaving with longing.  Like falling in love, or like Vaseline on the lens of the movie camera, it softens harsh reality to a flattering blur.

But in German, as Chicken Little pointed out in the comments to my recent post on German, Mist means “manure.”

Animal crap.  And since the manure pile in a German farm courtyard was also the compost heap and all-purpose trash midden (I’ll never forget being told brusquely by a child in a German-Romanian farmyard, when I asked him where all his new puppy’s siblings were:  “Im Mist“), to throw something “an den Misthaufen” is to dismiss it, discard it, shitcan it on the trash heap of history . . . one word encompassing both our meanings of “dump”!




What does that do to the song “I Get Misty, The Moment You’re Near”? Does it mean romance is a load of crap?

Are we having fun yet?

When J’s German cousin Ada came to visit us in New York many years ago, we were puzzled that she shrank from putting sugar in her coffee. We kept the sugar in a pretty coffee can with a Christmas design. On the can was the word “Gift.”  In German, that means “poison.”

Then there’s pula:
In Finnish:   the national bread.

In Setswana, the language of Botswana:  rain; also the name of the currency. (I adore that; calling your money “rain.”  I can relate.)

In Romanian:  penis.

(Man-na from heaven?)

More examples?



  1. Amba: I’m having a good laugh over this. You’re also talking about “cognative” dissonance. Example: I’ll never forget my German friend (and witness at my wedding) once telling me: “No German would ever name his beer Schlitz” (see the third bold-face meaning). Forgive me if you’ve heard me tell that one before at Trooper York’s-but I think it fell on deaf ears there.

    I’m knocking my brain now, trying to think of an example in English that doesn’t riff on German-but I’m drawing a blank. Why is that?

    I think the answer may have to do with the year 1066-the year when the more “proper” Old French (whence also Latin) began changing the Old English language. There are just so many examples of the dichotomy vulgar v. erudite:

    shit vs. excrement
    drink vs. beverage
    swine vs. pork
    folk vs. people
    reckon vs. calculate
    window vs. fenestration

    The idea is that the former of each pair is somehow more vulgar and the latter more refined- yet they mean the same! I could continue.
    George Orwell would (or did) have field day with this, and he lectured us about clarity-but did he talk about subtleties of class distinctions?

    Comment by El Pollo Real — September 15, 2009 @ 7:16 am | Reply

  2. Sheesh! Big response this garnered-either that or people were grossed out by my Schlitz example (hey “grossed” is another example?).

    Your Finnish “Pula” reminded me of something naughty that Victoria blogged last spring just before disappearing: link.

    I came back to the thread to let you know that I ran across a very useful list of so-called false cognates for German/English link. The list includes both “mist” and “gift” and there are many others.

    Just google “false cognates” and exemplary lists in other languages come up too. :)

    Comment by El Pollo Real — September 18, 2009 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  3. Problem might have been that these things always come to me after 2 AM so when I tweet them, nobody sees them.

    Comment by amba — September 18, 2009 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

  4. Maybe also that serious word freaks are a rare breed.

    Comment by amba — September 18, 2009 @ 11:04 pm | Reply

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