If you are very untidy and very unhappy, people may describe you as dishevelled and disgruntled. Unfortunately, the English language does not permit the opposite. Someone who is well-dressed and very happy can never be described as “hevelled” or “gruntled”:
- I was so happy to see that my blind date was hevelled and gruntled, but he was nonplussed to see that I, too, was wearing a very smart camel hair coat …
Interestingly, my “blind” date was not vision impaired … and is probably now quite plussed that we no longer stay in touch.
After all, camel hair is quite prickly. I do not know how intelligent it is …
Language on the road
Samuel Johnson and his dictionary are very useful … and have been the providers of just enough knowledge to get me into trouble.
I have travelled in many parts of the world and I am sure that when trying to use the local language I have told numerous bemused Greeks and Croatians and Japanese:
- I would like to eat your grandmother’s sandshoe
… so it is no wonder that I have at times been shown where to purchase a folding umbrella or taken by the hand to a nearby teashop for a sandwich.
The marvellous Monty Python has tackled this subject with some aplomb.
And therein lies the rub …
(And what does that mean? What is a “rub”? And why is it always “with some aplomb” and never with a lot of aplombs or even with a single plomb …)
In the Python skit, a struggling Hungarian traveller has a well-thumbed phrase book compiled by some demonic eastern European Samuel Johnson. Trying to ask a passing policeman for directions to the nearest railway station, the traveller proudly declaims:
- I want to fondle your buttocks
… and then is immediately thrown into jail or gaol … but not goal.
Just a few letters in a word make all the difference: in Japan, I found that wearing a yakuta is quite different from being a member of the yakuza.
I lived in Thailand for many years and the mysteries of the Thai language caused me great grief … but never saw me thrown into gaol or even into jail.
Thailand is a wonderful country. Its language is complex and its customs are both welcoming and confronting. An almost feudal division between the people and the monarchy still exists, and the levels of “proper” language still reflect these divisions. As in several other countries the language used to address superiors and that used to speak to friends is very different.
I asked my PA to check a note I had written in Thai to my housekeeper:
- Oh no! No! Khun Christ! That is the sort of greeting you would only use for the King! It would really insult her!
My offending phrase?
- Dear Khun Noi …
“Khun” is a useful word, meaning Mr or Mrs or Miss or perhaps even Ms … but the “Dear” was the word that was just too far over the top …
Because of centuries of linguistic evolution, Thai is a tonal language, and the same “word” in English can have several different sounds in Thai depending on its rising or falling or other tone. The sentence “New silk doesn’t burn, does it?” can be written (inelegantly) in English as:
- Mai mai mai mai, chai mai?
I am not sure why anyone would want to burn new silk – or even old silk – but it is probably no sillier – or no more silly – than:
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
Did you know that “a peck” was about six and a half kilograms? Nope – nor did I until I wrote that sentence – so I guess I weigh about thirteen pecks, but my “six pack” is more of a “mono-pack”. And I am still not sure what “pickled peppers” are.
In the Thai language, “white rice” and “white wine” have similar sounds and I have had many restaurant waiters stare at me as I have asked in my very best and my most fluent Thai:
- Could I please have a glass of white rice?
- Certainly sir – would you like chopsticks with that?
Many miles from Bangkok, a not-very-amusing waiter in a French ski resort once served me with a small pot of hot water after I had ordered a glass of port:
- Un porto / un pot d’eau
Hot tubs and US troubles
A few years ago, I was travelling in Latvia, and after a chilly day of scattering confusion among the locals with my atrocious pronunciation of their language I was relaxing in the hotel spa with other weary footsore voyagers. To be polite I asked the person next to me:
- No kurienes tu esi?
… which my demonic eastern European Samuel Johnson lexicon had assured me was a polite question to ask. The man looked at me blankly. I repeated my question. The man looked at me blankly. Someone else said:
- I think he is asking where you come from
The chubby chappie shook his jowls, chuckled, and chortled:
- Why man! I’m from Chicago!
Even when not in Latvian hot tubs, people in the USA speak a rather special form of English.
In the same way that the English spoken in civilised places such as Australia and India, US English draws on many ancient languages – Latin, Greek, Urdu and Gaelic – as well as the languages spoken by the original inhabitants – Iroquois, Choktaws and Cherokees.
In their questionable zeal to MAGA, US speakers of the English language have adopted and mangled and changed and distorted the language to the extent that it does not really serve its original purpose – to enable people to communicate easily.
In a Californian restaurant, after a wonderful dinner, I asked the waiter for a post-prandial sip:
- Could I please have a cognac – served in a balloon glass?
She looked at me as if I had spoken Choktaw. I repeated my request … and finally drew a picture on the serviette – sorry – napkin.
- Aw! Ya mean ya wanna brandy in a snifter!
But then, what can a happy traveller expect in a country where they have biscuits and gravy for breakfast. The “biscuits” are apparently made from pork sausage fat, flour, milk and bits of bacon. The very thought of it would put me off my fried black pudding*, quite a favourite in some parts of the UK.
- Has the US never heard that biscuits are served with scones and cream for afternoon tea?
Food Glorious Food!
There seems to be a bit of a trend here – troubles with a glass of white wine, a glass of cognac and a glass of port … but I assure you I do eat real food occasionally.
In Munich I found myself at a lovely restaurant near the Müller’sches Volksbad on the Isar River. I had enjoyed the various naked and clothed bathing options in the “Folks Bath” and sought refreshment.
There was no need of course for me to ask for “ein englisches Menü” since my German was of course as fluent as the Isar. I ordered a beer. A beer arrived. I studied the German menu and found that Tintenfischalen was on offer.
- Aha! A delightful local white fish. Yes please!
- You are sure?
- Yes – I love Tintenfischalen
The server took my order, took my measure, took my Euros … and returned in due course with a lovely dish of Tintenfischalen. Yummo.
Tintenfischalen is or are squid shells. I have eaten grilled octopods here and there, but these slithery white critters took a bit of courage – but were surprisingly good.
After the meal I did not ask for a port as I had done in the Les Arcs ski resort … but then again, in my hometown of Brisbane, many people use the word “port” to refer to a suitcase:
- I lost my port at the station
This is almost certainly a throwback to an old French word – portmanteau – but you’d never find a Queenslander acknowledging those damn Froggies for any part of their heritage …
- I asked my chauffeur to take me and my fiancée to detour past the hotel as we had a rendezvous with our solicitor before going to the cabaret …
Brisbane people will also go to a fish monger’s and ask for a slice of cod and a couple of scallops … but they do not want any shellfish to go with the fish. In Queensland, “scallops” means deep fried, batter-coated slices of potato, perhaps more commonly called “potato cakes” … But even so, there is still room for linguistic confusion as there is nothing remotely cake-like about these things: No candles, no cream filling, no marzipan frosting and no strawberries …
So while there are problems with Brisbane’s scallops, there are rarely troubles with travellers’ plates of meat … here or in London:
- Yeah, me plates of meat are killin’ me. I been chasin’ this Septic Tank ‘roun’ town ‘cause ‘e used ‘is dog and bone to snap a pic o’ me trouble ‘n’ strife’s Bristol Cities!
No translation necessary … or appropriate …
English is the great leveller. Everyone speaks English. English is the global language. English is the language of the Internet. If you do not know what parts of your body are called “plates of meat” you would probably have trouble popping into a London restaurant and trying to figure out what you are eating when the waiter brings you
- A spotted dick
- A black pudding
- A toad in the hole
- And some angels on horseback
… all washed down with a few “sherbets” …
Traditionally, a diner would start with a sherbet and some angels on horseback, move on to another sherbet or two with the black pudding (a main course, not a dessert) or the toad in the hole, toss back a couple more pigs’ ears (beers) and finish with the spotted dick (a steamed pudding with dried fruit and served with custard)(* featured image, LEFT) … and perhaps then a cognac in a balloon glass …
Then the rozzers would turn up, toss you in the Black Maria, and take you off to gaol or jail but not to the goal.
English as she ain’t spoke
I try not to find amusing examples of English when I travel in strange lands as the locals’ command of “my” language is almost certainly always better than my knowledge of the local lingo, but I did enjoy this road sign in India:
It is easy to accept that occasionally a non-English speaker will make an error when writing or speaking the English language … but why is it that in English speaking countries the locals demonstrate so often that THEY have even less command of the language than a Punjabi camel barber:
- Virgin Airlines: Bring on wonderful!
- Luxury car manufacturer Lexus: Live it impulsive!
- Macquarie Bank: Who should I bank with?
- Belong data services: Scroll good!
- AMP Insurance: Home loans – for whatever wealthy you want!
- Cocobella (a yoghurt company): All the feels … None of the dairy!
And English as she are spoke delights in sledging other languages and nations. Consider just a few rather insulting examples:
- Dutch courage: To get drunk enough to be brave
- French leave: To go absent without leave during battle
- Chinese whispers: Stories passed on incorrectly
- Indian giver: Someone who gives a “gift” but later wants it back
But it is not all one-way traffic. The French have hit back rather memorably with the phrase:
- Le vice anglais: Sadomasochism
Strap me down and tickle me with a feather, Your worship. It’s just a Chinese whisper, Your honour. No I never took French leave to get some Dutch courage and indulge in a little hanky-panky, you know, a bit of the old vice anglais …
Samuel Johnson ain’t without blame
I accept that travelling is a wonderful challenge as one comes to grip with new languages and new ideas and new foods, and I accept that while written Mandarin is possibly the most difficult language to master, modern idiomatic English is almost certainly the most difficult language to speak.
Imagine that poor Hungarian traveller tossed into gaol for erroneously declaring a fondness for coppers’ bottoms had he been faced with the words Mr Johnson coined so many years ago, featuring the letters “ough”:
- I walked through the forest
- My cough is worse today
- Although I wanted to go to Paris …
- The white-winged chough is a large black and white bird
There are few travellers worse than those who do not try to speak the local language … and while those who do so may occasionally find themselves in whimsical situations, surely it is better to have tried to eat your grandmother’s sandshoe than to have had baked beans for every meal.
Various travels over many years
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall January 2023
Photographs with asterisk (*) from the Internet
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship
4 thoughts on “Travelling with Sam … and a Spotted Dick”
Mmmmmm I haven’t had angels on horseback (or devils on horseback) for many years. Must make some soon
Yess … one is bacon-wrapped oysters … the other is, I think, bacon-wrapped prunes …?
As a retired English teacher I LOVED this posting! Thanks for the laughs. I particularly appreciated them after 7 weeks flat on my back first in a Peruvian, then in a Canadian hospital. Cheers, Glenda
Hello Glenda: I am pleased this little story brought a laugh or two after your hospital visits! I, too, used to teach English … which is perhaps why I am such an old fuss pot pedantic … Hope you are up and about again very soon. Best wishes. Chris