Flying Drunkards and Dead Elephants – When Languages go Wrong!

What is the most important thing when learning languages? Not to worry about making mistakes and to have a good laugh if you make one! I come from a family of linguists, I speak seven languages, my father spoke six, my mother speaks five and even my English hubby speaks four, and boy have we laughed at times!  I’m sure you’ve already had a good laugh at the language mistakes I’ve made since I moved to Gravesend 21 years ago, so for a change I’ve decided to share some family gems from over the years and mainly courtesy of my mother!!

My mother speaks Finnish, German  English and Spanish as well as her native tongue, Swedish. (In case you didn’t know, Finland is a bi-lingual country with 94% of the population speaking Finnish as their native tongue and 6% Swedish). My mother is fluent in Swedish (naturally, it being her native tongue!), English and German, but it is her Spanish and surprisingly as a Finnish citizen, her Finnish, that have caused her the most problems and embarrassments over the years.

Mum and dad Spain
Mum & dad on holiday in Spain

I have witnessed my mother telling the headwaiter in a restaurant in Spain that she is waiting for her “mariposo” when she intended to say she was waiting for her husband. You see Spanish for husband is marido, or esposo (spouse), but my mother unwittingly got the two words mixed up and called my father a “mariposo” …She laughed it away thinking she had called him a butterfly (mariposa) by accident, not realising she had just told the restaurant that she was waiting for her homosexual to arrive….Let’s just say that the waiters didn’t know what to think, but followed the situation of my father joining us for dinner with great interest!

Then there was the situation when we had standby airline tickets and had to check for availability of last minute seats to get back home to Finland and my mother told the hotel manager in Spain that there were no problems getting home as there were 22 empty toilets on the aeroplane! What she meant to say, was that we had checked with the airline and there were 22 empty seats, not toilets! (sp asientos=seats,  aseos=rest room)

However, it is my mother’s mistakes in Finnish that are quite legendary. Like when a bumble-bee flew in through an open window and she told the caller she had to finish the phonecall because a drunkard had just flown in through the window.  Now, a bumble-bee in Swedish is  a “humla” and in Finnish a “kimalainen“, but she got the words mixed up and called the insect  a “humalainen” which is a drunkard in Finnish. Needless to say, the caller was astounded and probably wondered if my mother had been on the wine herself!

Svinhufvudintie 2_5917
The house with the “dead elephant”! Photo credit Mikael Petterson Photography

Another time, my mother had noticed a bad smell in our apartment block. Bumping into the janitor and his wife and eagerly debating the reason for it, my mother suddenly exclaimed: “Minä olen aivan varma että siellä C-portaassa on kuollut norsu!” which translates to “I am absolutely certain that there is a dead elephant in block C“….The janitor stared at my mother, then regained his composure and asked:” Tarkoittaako rouva marsu?” (“Do you mean a guinea pig?”) to which my mother replied excitedly:”Juu, juu, se pieni karvainen eläin!” (“Yes, yes, the little furry animal!”) Yep, you guessed it, my mother got the Finnish words for guinea pig and elephant mixed up!  (fi marsu=guinea pig, norsu=elephant)

But top prize for the most embarrassing mistake must go not to my mother, but to her former colleague at a language institute in Helsinki. A respectable looking, middle-aged Swedish speaking lady in a twin set and with her hair set in a bun, she had been struggling with a cough through the night and had constant frogs in her throat. But in Swedish you don’t have frogs in your throat, the animal changes for some reason and instead of a frog, you say it’s a rooster that makes you want to clear your throat.

So there she was, in front of her English speaking colleagues, when she coughed and apologised loudly to a dumbfounded and shocked crowd:

“I’m sorry, but I have had cocks in my throat all night”

Still today, more than 30 years after the abovementioned event, if someone coughs in a theatre or at a concert, my husband will turn to me and whisper: “Do you think she’s had cocks in her throat all night?????”

So, let this be a lesson to all of us who speak several languages…don’t worry about making mistakes, but never translate sayings word by word or it might leave you red faced and choking…. 🙂


7 Comments Add yours

  1. -K- says:

    Kiitos päivän nauruista 😀 😀


    1. Ole hyvä! Jutut ovat naurattaneet meitä jo monta vuotta ja lisää mokia varmaan tulossa, itseltäni siis!


  2. No photo credits on the Spanish one 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sartenada says:

    Muy divertido. Muchas gracias. ¡Que tengas un muy buen día!


    1. Gracias por leer mi blog mi amigo

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Tuula Bekas says:

    Thank you so much, I really needed it


    1. A good laugh? You’re welcome! Glad you liked it.


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