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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.