This essay is a mainly light-hearted look at some of the misunderstandings that have inevitably occurred when travellers have set foot in unfamiliar countries. They might range from the trivial, such as when my friend J asked for a rubber in a Wisconsin stationers and was politely but firmly escorted to the drugstore, to the historically significant, as in 1840 when Queen Victoria's servants erected the Union Jack in New Zealand and the Maoris chopped it down, thus starting the Maori Wars. Actually the Maoris were not the ones who were mistaken: it was the custom that a claimant would erect a post in the territory claimed, and that a disputant would cut it down. The dispute would have been settled by due process, that is, by two gangs armed with knobkerries. The British had firearms, though. The desire to avoid similar misunderstandings led to the establishment of comparative anthropology as an academic subject.
The first Spaniard to set foot deliberately on mainland Mexico landed on the nearest point to Cuba. The natives there spoke Chontal, a Mayan tongue. He asked a local “Where am I?” - “¿Dónde estoy?”, and he replied “What do you mean?” - “Yucatán”. “Kangaroo” is also reputed to represent “What do you mean?” One of Pizarro's conquistadores, on encountering a New World camelid for the first time, asked “What is it called?” - “¿Cómo se llama?” The nonplussed Quechua speaker simply repeated the question: llama. The name stuck. A Dutch governor of Cape Town, on a tour of his domains, encountered two black women. Having never seen a black woman before, or perhaps a black woman in that particular costume, he asked his Hottentot guide “What are those people?” The guide replied “Dáma-ra”. The Dama bit is the French word for “lady”, and the ra is the dual suffix in the Nama language. In other words, “Two women”. This obtuseness gave rise to the European name for the Damara tribe and for their territory, Damaraland.
Sometimes foreigners are deliberately misled. An innocent-looking tourist in France might be recommended the Hôtel Merdauvache by a helpful Frenchman, who, however, would claim to be unsure of the precise location, being a stranger himself, but if the English monsieur would like to ask those nice policemen they would surely indicate the correct direction.
“M-M-Merde aux vaches.” (Shit to the pigs; actually “cows” in French).
The helpful Frenchman and his companions would be sniggering at a safe distance.
Years ago, when Britain and France were habitually at war, British soldiers were known as les goddams. Even today, a woman announcing the start of her period might say “les goddams sont débarqués.” (“The redcoats have landed”). Nowadays les foucoffs sont arrivés means that the English football supporters have arrived, so board up the shop windows and summon the CRS riot police. The English word (actually Irish) hooligan is now understood round the world. In Japan it has mutated to pulikan. So a pulikan maru was a hulk fitted out, accompanied by massive publicity, with redundant cargo containers to incarcerate hooligans offshore for the duration of their World Cup. Curiously, Japan was not afflicted by hooliganism. The Dutch word for “football hooligan” is de suporter. The Russians have had the word guligan in their vocabulary for many years. In Communist days guliganizm was an offence that anybody could be found guilty of if there was no other offence with which to indict them. Thus in the 1960's bicycle riders and beekeepers were convicted of hooliganism.
One day I was leaning over a bridge in Amsterdam admiring a canal view, when I was struck a powerful blow behind the knees. I turned round in some anger to find that the culprit was lying on his back on a frame between two wheels and pedalling with his legs in the air. Naturally he could not see where he was going. I complained about this to a Dutch friend.
“What made it even worse”, I said, “was that I was standing under a sign that read GEEN FIETSES. Even with my limited Dutch I know that means 'no bicycles'”.
“There you are mistaken”, said my friend. “Those signs were put up during the War and everybody knew that they should be understood as GEEN DIETSES, that is, NO GERMANS.”
The perpetrator of that outrage was clearly a Wally, which meant in the 1980's a man who was proud of exhibiting his stupidity. The word derives from Egypt during the Second World War, when a soldier might reject the stubborn importunities of a pimp.
“Imshi, imshi, you horrible little man!”
The said horrible little man might act out a pantomime of amazed incredulity, followed by sudden comprehension:
“Why you no say? You not like bint, you like walidh!”
The same word in India meant simply “man” and was adopted by colonial types as “wallah”. A boxwallah was an itinerant pedlar, and the thunderbox-wallah was, facetiously, the man who cleaned out the commode. My melodeon was referred to as “Mo's thunderbox” and I was therefore a thunderbox-wallah.
Motor car manufacturers are most concerned lest the names that they give their models excite ridicule or outrage. Rolls-Royce once had a narrow escape. They proposed naming their new flagship model “Silver Mist” until somebody pointed out that Mist is one of numerous German words for “faeces”. Mist und Scheisse is what a German might say if he hits his thumb with a hammer. Vauxhall Nova was a no-go in Spanish-speaking countries. Literally. It means “It doesn't go”. The manufacturer's name Standard was all right in Britain, where it means a rallying-point or a criterion of excellence. In the USA, however, it means “small measure” or “not very good”. The company had to use the name Triumph. Even more unfortunate was the Austrian manufacturer Steyr-Puch. Owners in an English-speaking country had to put up with the joke “You Steyr and I'll Puch”. Worst of all was the company who named a car Monza after the Italian racing circuit, then advertised it in Greece with a young woman dressed in Greek colours, blue and white stripes, and giving the mounza. This is where you thrust the palm of your hand, fingers extended, towards somebody. It means “Go back to Hell (or Turkey) where you come from!”
Interpreters are always important people, and when they make a mistake trouble can result. On the other hand, they can intrude their own agendas into conversations, as demonstrated in the Sherlock Holmes story The Greek Interpreter. Brigadier Dudley Clarke, one of the most devious people of all time, who operated strategic deception for Montgomery and subsequently Eisenhower, spoke six languages but pretended that he was monoglot, so that he could pick up the hidden colloquy between his interlocutor and their interpreter. Stalin, who as a Caucasian knew several languages as a matter of course, used to play the same trick. When Cortés first landed on the Mexican shore, he took on board a shipwrecked priest called Don Aguilar and a young woman who had been sold into slavery by the Imperial authorities. The former spoke Spanish and Chontal, and the latter, Malinali, spoke Nahuatl and Chontal. So when Cortés need to converse with dignitaries in Tlaxcala, Texcoco or Tenochtitlan, he had to use two intermediaries, thus from Spanish into Chontal and from Chontal into Nahuatl. What he did not appreciate was that Malinali was both formidably intelligent and passionately resentful of the Imperial authorities. They had, after all, killed her father, taken her brother to have his heart ritually extracted, and sold her as a slave to the Mayans. She quickly learned Spanish, making Aguilar redundant, so she was able to dominate negociations. The modern Mexican word malinchismo, which means “cultural genocide”, is based on a misunderstanding. Because Malinali perforce acted as spokesman, contrary to received ideas of a woman's place in society, Cortés was disrespectfully called Malintzin, that is, Mr Malinali. This name was subsequently and incorrectly transferred to the lady and hispanicised to Malinche. [I have seen a page in the Codex Mendoza in which Malinali is depicted wearing her hair dyed red and glued into two horns, the uniform of a licensed prostitute.]
Misunderstandings do not have to be verbal. It used to be accepted practice for a British diplomat to eat the sheep's eye that he would be offered as the honoured guest at an Arab banquet. In fact, the host was showing him the eye so that the honoured guest could be in no doubt that the meat was that of a succulent young lamb and not that of a superannuated ewe. Of course word got around of this British eccentricity, so it became the polite thing to do to allow British diplomats to eat the sheep's eyes, much to the Arabs' amazement.
Sometimes misunderstandings are bogus. Every now and then a visitor to Australia, on being asked at immigration “Do you have a criminal record?”, fails to resist temptation. My friend D fell into this trap, and with his haughtiest pommie voice replied:
“I wasn't aware that that was still a requirement of entry!”
He was locked away for several hours by an unamused official. It works the other way, too. A gorgeously arrayed English gent, in advance of a Royal Visit, presented his passport, in which his occupation was given as “Courtier”. The Australian official looked him up and down, taking in his brushed bowler hat; his hair just the right shade of grey to suggest maturity but not senescence, sculpted into little wings and discreetly pomaded; his cavalry moustache; his grey silk tie; his black velvet jacket; his pinstripe trousers; his brogues from Lobb's; and his valise with the royal cipher embossed in gold. Then he looked back at the passport.
“Oy, cloth-ears! There ain't no fucking T in 'courier'!”
Compton Mackenzie, who was a respected novelist and literary pundit between the Wars, told the story of a Highland regiment that had overrun a German trench. The Germans raised their hands and shouted “Kamerad!”. But the Gaelic-speaking highlanders interpreted this as “Ciamar a tha?” (How are you?) So they replied in Gaelic (I have forgotten the actual words) “Very well, thank you”. The Germans heard this as “Prepare to die!” and pleaded “Please don't shoot!”, to which the highlanders replied “It's turned out nice, hasn't it”. No doubt Mackenzie embellished it, but it is a good story nevertheless.
Many years ago I was one of six students who spent a whole summer in Greece. We crossed the frontier by car from what is now Northern Macedonia and lunched in Thessaloníki. From there we ventured into the Khalkídiki peninsula along a series of dirt roads. When at last we arrived at a village, we had no idea where we were, and, being obviously foreign, we were surrounded by children. My friend A took out his Greek dictionary, looked up the word “where”, and asked the children “pou?” “Pou”, the children replied. “Pou!” said A, in a tone of exasperation. At this the children danced around us in a cirle, pointing at us with their index fingers and going “pou pou pou!” I saved the situation by asking “Ti ónoma edhó?” That is not, I believe, good Greek, but it proved to be good enough, for the children gave us the name of their village, which we were able to locate on our map.
Greece is a very good place for misunderstandings. For a start, in the southern Balkans they nod the head for “No” and shake the head for “Yes”. If you think about it, there must be a nod/shake boundary at which mutual comprehension is impossible. Well, there is: it runs through Bosnia-Hercegovina! This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the Greeks say ne for “yes” and ókhi for “no”. Of course, ne is short for íne “it is” and ókhi for ouk íne “it is not”, but it still takes some getting used to.
A young teacher from Oxford went on a camping holiday to Greece. He unfortunately neglected to equip himself with the numerals and the essential courtesies that every traveller should learn. Needing breakfast, he visited the local village store to buy eggs. A quick glance at the shop display showed him that the Greeks do not sell eggs in boxes of six but hung up in strings of five. Not having the resources to ask for pénde óa pará kaló, which would have met his requirements, he began by making an egg shape with his finger and thumb. At this the shopkeeper, smiled, repeated the gesture, and said adáxi, which means “All is in order” or plain “OK”. Next the hapless traveller adopted a squatting position and hopped about flapping his elbows and making clucking noises. This alarmed the shopkeeper and entertained the other customers. Finally, to represent the numeral “five” he made the mounza (see above). The final scene in this drama consisted of the young man running for his life down the high street, closely pursued by the shopkeeper brandishing his biggest meat cleaver...