San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bewildered by Confusion: Don’t Misunderstand Me

Misunderstandings are inevitable, especially when crossing language and culture lines. Still, they can leave us feeling that we’ve committed serious social errors and the world will see us as idiots.

Misunderstandings occur because of nuances in language or because of faulty hearing. Sometimes the fast pace we maintain doesn’t let us think through what it is we want to say. And some misunderstandings just defy reason. Here are some examples.

We all know you cannot translate directly from one language to another, but one young Tica commenting on a visit to New York was impressed with the “skyscrapers” (rascacielos).

Ticos studying English find it strange that we refer to grown sons and daughters as our children. Don’t children cease being children when they reach 18?

Those of us who studied Spanish in another country learned that towels are toallas. But not here in Costa Rica, as one hostess learned after offering to put fresh ones in the bathroom for her guests – none of them really needed a sanitary napkin.

In keeping with my personal code to save the environment, when I saw some teenagers throw a pail full of something white into the street, I called over to them about not polluting the street and asked them to pick up whatever they had thrown. “It’s ice,” they called back.

Language is the most common avenue for confusion. A newcomer here bought goats and was told they like pasto. Thinking it was pasta, he fed them spaghetti instead of sending them to the pasture.

A newly married woman from the United States went to the Central Market to buy soup bones for her Tica mother-in-law. She went from stall to stall asking for “holes” until someone clued her in that she wanted huesos, not huecos.

Another Gringa got mixed up over internar and enterrar, and told a neighbor about a pregnant friend who went to the clinic and was buried.

A North American went into a restaurant and asked for a cerveza (beer). They brought her the key to the servicio (restroom).

Another referred to a beginning nun (novicia) as a calf (novilla).

A Tica flying home after many years abroad got confused about her own first language when her friendly seatmate invited her to join him in a romería. Not understanding it was a religious pilgrimage, she asked a cabin attendant for a seat change.

Confusion crops up within one’s own language too. These were heard on radio and TV, where news read rapidly off a teleprompter can cause mistakes. One grave error occurred when a Channel 42 reporter said the Red Cross killed (mató) a patient and had to correct it to say they sent (mandó) him to the hospital.

A radio reporter told about a new policy to help sinners (pecadores) when he meant fishermen (pescadores). Another report talked about donating (donar) children instead of adopting (adoptar) them.

A Red Cross paramedic told a news team about a time they answered a call concerning a man who was decomposed (descompuesto). Expecting to find a well-aged cadaver, they were surprised to find the man had only fainted and had already “composed himself.”

Sometimes the misuse of a word causes us to wonder. Looking up the word zopilotes (vultures) on Google’s Costa Rica pages, we find a number of entries about government functionaries.

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