Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

SomethingAwful is a (generally not work-safe) comedy site that usually gets me laughing with every visit. Perhaps they’re most famous for “Photoshop Phridays”, but they have a variety of columnists and recurring features that are worth checking out for a quick laugh.

However, a recent edition of “Comedy Goldmine” is simply too magnificent not to feature here. The theme? Foreign Language Screw-Ups.

Although they’re all pretty funny, it seems like most of them can be broken down into a few different categories of speech error.

False Cognates

A foreign language word is considered to be a “cognate” if it’s similar in both sound and meaning to a word in one’s native language, and they both descended from the same source, either from a mother language or through borrowing. For instance, in Spanish, the word for ‘computer’ (computadora) is a cognate, as is the word for ‘volunteer’ (voluntario). These cognates happen frequently when two languages borrow heavily from the same language. In this case, English and Spanish both have many words with Latin roots.

However, it’s not uncommon for foreign language students to accidentally use a “false cognate”. These are, as you might suspect, words that sound very similar in two languages, but have different meanings. The textbook Spanish example is assistir (‘to attend’) and atender (‘to assist’). Sometimes, the mistakes can be innocent, but sometimes…

Frog writes…
Last year on a vacation to Cuba I rented a moped and managed to break it. When I returned it to the rental place I used my awesome high school Spanish to say I was ‘embarazado’ about what happened, meaning to say embarrassed. Turns out ‘embarazado’ means ‘pregnant’. I’m a guy.

Note, it’s not just English speakers who can make this mistake:

Dark Chicken writes…
This brother and sister I knew grew up in Mexico and were eating at a restaurant in the States. Well, the brother kept on bothering the sister, so she finally yelled, “Stop molesting me!” The restaurant went dead silent and everybody stared.

This comes from the false Spanish cognate, molestar, which means (completely innocently) ‘to annoy’ or ‘to bother’.

False cognates can make for some wonderful communication issues, but they’re not the only source of interlingual hilarity.

Secondary Meanings

In many languages, it’s common for words to have several meanings. Just like the English “cock” can either denote a male chicken or the male sexual organ, languages are littered with minefields of multiple meanings.

When a non-native speaker looks up a word in the dictionary, especially a small dictionary, it’s not uncommon to see several options listed. So, if a Spanish speaker wanted to tell a woman “You have a pretty cat” and looked the word up in a dictionary, there’s a decent chance that, quite innocently, he’ll use the word “pussy” instead and he’ll end up complimenting her genitalia. Here’s one wonderful example of a hilarious alternate meaning:

QueenOfMistakes writes…
The only thing I can think of was when I was in my German class and we’d been having a heatwave. I said “Ich bin heiss” (meaning “I am hot”), which made my teacher laugh.
Apparently, saying “Ich bin heiss” is one way of saying “I’m horny” in German.

This can also work the other way around. Sometimes, a language will have a word with two meanings, and in the other language, each meaning has a distinctive word.

Luebbi writes…
When I was in London with my class (German students), something hilarious happened at the airport. We where standing in a queue and some Brits came around and started to cut in line. A friend of mine yelled: “You can’t come here! There’s a snake here!”, which not only baffled the British couple, but made everyone else, including our teacher, laugh out loud.

The German word “Schlange” is used both for snake and queue, and he used the direct translation.

Grammatical Errors

Sometimes, you can have all the words right, but a little tiny grammatical error will get you.

Fhqwhgads writes…
Back in High School, while on a class trip to Italy, one of the guys was hitting on a local chick. He was doing well, until he used the word “bello” (instead of “bella”). She slapped him and walked away. Never call an Italian girl handsome.

Here, the writer failed to take into consideration the fact that in Italian (as well as in many other languages), adjectives are marked for gender. In English, we have separate words (a girl is “pretty” and a guy is “handsome”), but in Italian, that little tiny morpheme (unit of meaning) is able to completely derail even the most persuasive of pick-ups. The gender distinction can also change the meaning of words…

Mortanis writes…
Back in high school French, we had to pair off and interview your partner, then relate their day back to the class in French. A friend of mine interviewed a girl, and promptly reported to the class “She likes to play with her cat”.
But used the feminine for cat, which is slang for pussy. Was pretty enjoyable to watch our fairly attractive French teacher start snickering over something like that.

Misleading Mispronunciations

Nearly any foreign language one studies will have some sounds that are different from those in your native language. As a phonetics student, this brings me great joy, but when speaking another language, these differences can lead to some wonderful errors:

Ayreon writes…
“Cook” in Dutch is “kok” which is pronounced “cock”. A friend of mine once tried to “thank the cock for the nice meal” at a restaurant.

A co-worker of my dad’s name is Dick de Cock, which is a perfectly normal name in the Netherlands. However, when he got a promotion and suddenly had to travel all over the world, he got a lot of weird looks.

Here, I suspect that the Aspirated/Unaspirated distinction might be causing problems:

sewid writes…
Walking around crowded night markets in Taiwan after getting a taste of my first giant chicken schnitzel I asked my girlfriend how to say chicken schnitzel in Mandarin which she told me was “gi pai”
Much to her amusement when I misheard her, thinking she said it “gi bai” i loudly proclaimed in Mandarin to all around that I loved “gi bai”
Which I found out shortly sort of means I love vagina.

All it takes is a simple change in the voicing of a consonant to go from loving sausage to loving the polar opposite. Scary, huh?


There’s no shortage of ways to mess up in a foreign language. Between treacherous false-cognates, deceitful second meanings, grammatical gaffes and malicious mispronunciations, sometimes a second of speech may seem like an ocean of opportunity for offensive communication.

However, the beauty of it all is that generally, people laugh when such speech errors are made. If somebody knows you’re a foreigner, you often get the benefit of the doubt.

The moral of this story: Next time you’d like to compliment a girl’s pussy, you’d better have an accent, or else you’re going to be very, very pregnant.

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