Who’s on first? Misadventures in language-land

August 9, 2015
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Who’s on First,” the famous dialogue by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello about baseball players with funny names, was first used in 1938 and is still recalled today. It is a perfect example of how language can get screwed up.

Language mixups are common, and even more so when it comes to working in two or more languages. Even big international companies can get into trouble, as did Rolls Royce: they tried to sell their Silver Mist in Germany, where the word mist means manure. And Chevrolet couldn’t push their Nova cars in Latin America because the words no va mean “it doesn’t go.”

In Spanish, the word molestar means to bother. Una molestia is a nuisance. These words are heard all the time. But you would never tell someone in English to stop molesting you because she is being annoying, or say you were molested because you lost your umbrella. Another example is the word van. In English, it’s a little bus. In Spanish it means ‘they are going.’ In Hungarian, it means ‘is,’ but that doesn’t concern us because only Hungarians speak Hungarian.

We also have to deal now with computer language and new words and expressions that are not in our standard lexicons but which crop up on the internet and spread to the rest of life. LOL. REMFLO. U2. X. Por q. Scan and escanear. What’s a bucket list? We didn’t have those when I lived in the States and trolls lived under bridges and ate billy goats. I won spelling bees when I was in school, and now I don’t understand English and can’t spell it.

Worse yet is bilingual spelling, especially when we come across new names or products. When talking person-to-person, we can call on clues from body language, or whip out a pen and pencil and say “Could you write that down please?” Over the phone we are stymied. “Could you spell that for me please?” “¿Lo podría deletrear, por favor?” Sometimes kind Spanish-speakers will try to clarify a word by using English, which makes it even more confusing. “Is that an ‘a’ in English or ‘e’ in Spanish? Is that an ‘e’ in English or an ‘i’ in Spanish?

We work it out in the end. “‘A’ as in Alajuela. ‘E’ as in escuela.”

Then one day someone wanted to give me an email address with a “w” in it. This is a letter that can generate some confusion. The doble uve can make a language learner wonder what words in English or Spanish have a double v, and the only word with two u’s is vacuum, a word I use only when I plan to clean floors. If you check a Spanish-English dictionary under “W” it says, “This letter does not belong to the Spanish alphabet and is only used in proper names and foreign words.”

There we were, stumped, trying to clarify the letter “w” in an email address in a bilingual phone conversation, until I thought of one “w” word familiar to all.

“’W’ as in Walmart,” I said.

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