7.5 Innocent Words That Can Get You Into Trouble Abroad

One of the things that has stopped me from speaking another language is the fear of unintentionally offending people. It has dawned on me that this reasoning is ridiculous. Since I’ve been inadvertently causing offense in English my whole life, why should I hold myself back from doing so in other languages as well?

This brought to mind several troublesome English words that have tripped me up over the years due to varying usage in different cultures:

Pants

Attention North American travellers: Repeat after me … “trousers.” It might sound a bit prissy to say at first but you will get used to it and it will save you a world of embarrassment. Pretty much everywhere else in the English-speaking world “pants” are undergarments, whereas “trousers” are the garment you wear on the outside.

Pants versus Trousers
Figure A: The distinction between “pants” and “trousers.” Photos by Enrique Lin and Michael Nielsen

Alas, I discovered this distinction far too late in the game. I finally cottoned on to it in 2007 when I stayed in England for a month. Suddenly I had an explanation for all of the weird reactions I got years earlier from people when I was guiding them through the 2041 exhibit at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. My section of the exhibit was devoted to sustainable living and I had these organic cotton khakis which were a good example of the small choices one can make to live more sustainably. I shudder to think how many people believed I was prattling on about my underwear to total strangers.

 Ride

I need a ride
Figure B: The author demonstrates the wrong way to get a lift in Ireland

In my vernacular a ride is the act of driving someone somewhere, or perhaps the vehicle itself. It turns out that in Ireland it means something completely different. This has me re-evaluating every conversation I have ever had with an Irish person. I cannot drive so transportation and the logistics of getting from A to B is a frequent topic of conversation. Little did I know that “ride” is a colloquial term for intercourse in Ireland. Ask for a lift instead.

 Cottage

Where I live in Canada, a vacation home is typically referred to as a cottage. Occasionally one might describe someone as “cottaging” if they were, say, spending an entire summer at their cottage. Imagine my surprise to learn from a colleague that when used as a verb, both of these terms can be slang for casual sex in public places. It certainly put a different slant on the copy that I wrote about vacationing in New York State, and I will henceforth never view the term “cottage country” the same way again!

 Knock Up

When my doctor stood by my bedside and calmly promised to knock me up the following morning, I knew there had to be a rational explanation. There was. He was British and to him the act of knocking someone up has nothing to do with conception, but rather waking someone up. So do not be alarmed  or overreact if you are travelling in the UK and your host offers to knock you up.

 Dinner/Supper

I have become completely befuddled by dinner and supper. They seem to mean different things to different people. To most they refer to the evening meal, but for some this meal can occur at lunchtime. In England the majority of people seem to call the evening meal “tea” unless it is a special occasion. To avoid confusion and the prospect of standing someone up, it’s best to confirm with your host or dining companions at what hour you are expected to join them for the meal.

Dinner Supper Tea
Figure C: The conundrum of knowing what meal you are speaking about. Photo by Cliph

 Subway

Subway may be a sandwich shop the world over, but its meaning as it pertains to underground railways can get muddled. In Europe a subway is a subterranean walkway, whereas the trains that you ride underground are typically referred to as “the Tube” or “underground” or “metro” depending on where you are. To confuse matters further there are often subways leading to Tube stations.

 Root

I am growing convinced that every word in the English language has a secret, racy meaning that is known to everyone in the world but me. While Roots is a popular brand of apparel in Canada, and is sometimes used as a casual synonym for rummaging, apparently if you are in Australia it has another connotation entirely. See Ride.

It’s always a good idea to adjust your word choices depending on whom you are speaking to, but before you work yourself into a mass of linguistic angst, rest assured that most people the world over have seen enough Hollywood movies and consumed enough popular culture to be wise to the fact that there are other meanings to these terms.

Have you had any linguistic mishaps in your travels? Please share your funny stories in the Comments below.

31 Comments

    1. Ha! I see Skyring got the appropriate amount of flak after writing about wanting to knock you up in the ladies dorm. So is that an Aussie thing too, then? I may do a whole post someday on different terms for the bathroom. If you guys every want another cheerful travelling companion on on one of your expeditions, keep me in mind!

  1. In Aus we use pants for pants….the long leg version.

    I was amazed at the cottage use in Canada over the Summer! So cute! That and patio….it’s a beer garden, Canucks!!

    Best not to use root in Australia – unless that’s what you are looking for! Ha!

    1. Hey Tash, thanks for weighing in. I will bear that in mind about “root”, as I’m looking to visit Melbourne and other points downunder in 2014. Luckliy, despite my family being mad horticulturalists, it doesn’t tend to come up as often in conversation as ride.

      The other usage of pants that I didn’t mention of course is its use as a derogatory remark similar to “rubbish” or “that sucks”

  2. I honestly did not know about the use of ‘cottage’ in Canada!

    In terms of Dinner, Supper, Tea…it depends on where in England you are, or where the person referencing the meal is from. If you are in the North / they are from the North of England, evening meal = tea (and tea = brew). Us southerners call it dinner.

    I’m still wrestling with pronunciation of words in Canada. When I ask for ‘To-may-to’ in my sandwich, I feel like I have cheated on my English language 🙁

    1. Thanks Kieran! There’s too much “it depends” about mealtimes that I’ve given up trying to keep it straight and just focus on what time I’m meant to turn up. “Tea” as a reference to the evening meal was fairly commonplace among southerners when I worked in Hampshire (that’s considered southern, right?) Perhaps it is gaining in popularity. And I’ve sometimes heard dinner refer to lunch (e.g. Jamie’s school dinners.) It’s making my head hurt just thinking about it.

      LOL re To-may-to = cheating! Why don’t you just stay true to your mother tongue and its pronunciations? I’m sure Torontonians have heard to-mah-to before!

  3. Great post Steph! I didn’t know about the cottage one, what confuses me about cottages/cottage country in North America is that to me cottage means tiny home in the country, normally reserved for elderly who have veg gardens..not 2nd home by a lake with 4 bedrooms and a boat..as most I have come across here! The notion of camping/campsites is also very different here. In terms of offending people I always manage to do it by saying I am going to ‘use the toilet’ rather than the ‘washroom/bathroom.’ North Americans don’t wash or bathe in the room where there is a toilet, so you might as well call it like it is! 😛

    1. Thanks Karin! Yes, cottages in this neck of the woods have gone completely OTT. I much prefer the English type of cottage. Even more preposterous than washroom/bathroom is restroom, as there is very little resting involved at all.

  4. Oh, I have been befuddled many a time.
    You did teach me things I didn’t know, but as I age, I have learned many new things from younger friends and family!!!
    Anyway… the 1st floor to me is the first floor you enter… but no, elsewhere in the world, that would be ground floor, and the next floor up is the 1st floor (above ground!) Had that confusion many times in the UK.
    I’ll have to think of other ones…. jumper for a sweater, singlet – a t-shirt, undergarment…
    Oh yes, there was the time my uncle’s dachshund nipped me, and my mother told her friend that her brother’s dachy bit me. Her friend looked at my mother funny, and Mom said, you know dachshund, weiner dog? Her friend started laughing, she had wondered about my mother being so calm about her brother parading his “bit on the side” (doxy) around his niece, muchless that this woman had bit me!!!!

    1. Haha! What a crazy scenario she must have had running through her mind!

      Ah, jumpers. I think it was reading Bridget Jones that finally caused me to make the connection that jumpers were sweaters. Up to that point I’d always considered a jumper as a coveralls type dealio. I guess in British terms that would be a boilersuit perhaps. Just imagine the havoc I can unleash in other languages if I get this confused by English!

  5. When my future husband offered to buy me a fanny pack he didn’t understand why I went urp, and then I explained, and I don’t think I’ve seen him laugh so hard ever since. It’s a double one because Britspeak for the same thing, bum bag, has weird connotations in American, too.

    Don’t try to understand the meal thing. I grew up with lunch = dinner, 4:30 p.m. meal = tea, nighttime snack = supper. However, our next door neighbours, also northerners, had dinner…and we would go out to dinner in a restaurant. Dad worked shifts so our meals were always odd.

    Even within the north, there were variants…and I knew southern people who had “afternoon tea.” That’s also the posh thing you enjoy in tearooms and restaurants like the Ritz, with mouth-sized cakes.

    In Scotland a fish supper is the same as fish and chips. Good luck getting gravy with chips in the south, though curry sauce and mushy peas seem to be ubiquitous.

    Btw, tea brew in all of the north. In Yorkshire, it’s a cup of tea. In Lancashire, I heard it called brew a lot.

    You made me laugh.

    1. Fanny packs are just wrong on so many levels. 😉

      As I mentioned to Kieran, I give up on meals. Here and in Britain there seems to be an enormous amount of subjectivity around it. Of course also related to tea is “rosy.” I may follow up with a post about Cockney rhyming slang sometime. It might as well have been Swahili the first time someone asked me, “Fancy a rosy?”

      Delighted to know that I made you laugh. That’s about the best compliment there is. 🙂

  6. Hey, the comments thing stripped out my not-equals-to sign. Brew is not the generic term for a cup of tea (a cuppa) in the north; only in some parts.

  7. I had no idea about several of these phrases, thanks for the heads up. I LOVE your graphics 🙂 But don’t let your fear of offending anyone keep you from speaking another language, I think people appreciate your attempts more than if you don’t. I’ve been blathering on mediocre Spanish for years and I’m not sure that I’ve ever offended anyone. There are a few regional disparities that could offend (“joder” is one) but it’s not likely a beginner would ever know to use one of these words. The one funny thing a beginner may do is confuse the word “embarasada” for embarrassed–it means pregnant.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement. The heads up about “embarasada” is very helpful. That’s just the sort of gaffe I would make!

      Glad you like the graphics. Bad Photoshopping is one of my specialties. 😉

    1. Indeed, Canada is an interesting hybrid. We adopt British spelling of most things, but usage-wise we seem to have greater similarities to the US. You will never hear Canadians using words like “whilst”, “bespoke”, or “chuffed” for instance(although I have made it a personal pet project to popularize the word chuffed over here.)

      Something that amazes me about Canada is how linguistically homogeneous we are, despite the vast geographic area. There are far fewer regional accents here than in so many countries that are much smaller.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  8. Brilliant post! I’m sure everyone who has travelled can relate to some of these miscommunications. I had my English sensibilities well and truly shocked when, 3 days after moving in with my new Aussie flatmate she yelled that I had left my ‘thongs’ on the balcony! Not something you would do with the English version of thongs…

    1. Thanks Claire! Ha! Beyond being a cultural thing, the “thongs” issue can be a generational one as well. One of my American friends who is in her 50s was lamenting how to her “thongs” are footwear, whereas nowadays it refers almost exclusively to undergarments and that has led to some awkward conversations.

  9. I love false friends (in linguistic terms) 🙂 Great post. The pants/trousers conundrum is omnipresent in London, with so many different nationalities. I wasn’t aware of “root”, so thanks for that!

    1. I can scarcely imagine all of the linguistic conundrums that must arise constantly in London. Thankfully the locals seem to be used to the gaffes of us visiting ignoramuses 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Ha! In Australia, pants are short breaths.

    No, actually I know the difference. It always seems odd. Just this minute I got off the LL Bean website, where I bought pants.

    The meal thing. I use “dinner” interchangeably for lunch and tea, which confuses my kids no end. You’d think they’d be used to it.

    As for knocking up DL in her dorm, I just clicked on that old entry, reliving that magic day. Plaid the video with Tony Bennett. How I love San Francisco! I’ll be there again in six weeks, just for a day. I’ll walk along that beach – alone this time – and I’ll be blue for a bit. Travelling is so much more fun with a companion!

    1. Ha ha, you are so clever. Safe travels, m’dear! What’s bringing you to San Francisco, other than your love affair with the place? On your way to Sweden perhaps?

  11. This is hilarious! As an Australian, I’ve learnt the distinction between thong and flip flop, jumper and sweatshirt (after an awkward conversation when we offered a middle aged man a jumper), boot and trunk. I love the conversations that come before these realisations.

    As for root… it gets me every time that there is a canadian department store called this. “Root Kids” – don’t get me started!

  12. Great post!
    It’s also worth to mention a common mistake of English speakers in Italy: while for most of us the Italian caldo would be similar to the English cold it means exactly the opposite! Caldo means warm, freddo means cold.
    Beware when you wash your hands or complain for the weather;-)

    1. Thanks Agata! That’s a great tip. It’s very counterintuitive because it does sound like it would be cold. Being the dweeb that I am, I studied Latin in school, and I remember thinking the same thing at the time. To jog my memory, I try to think of it in the same terms as “scald”, which has to do with heat, obviously. And delicious semifreddo is a splendid way to remember cold words 😉

  13. Haha I found this article amusing! I can totally imagine – “Hey nice pants..” “Heyyy what’d you say to my girl?!”

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