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Left Coast / Right Coast: Language – or how to get in trouble without really trying

Over the years it has occurred to me that language can be both unclear as well as clear and also funny. For example when we say: “I’m having an old friend for dinner” does that mean that the friend needs to cancel the dinner appointment for fear of being eaten?
Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Nancy Gold.

By Mike Gold, A retired entrepreneur living the dream in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the years it has occurred to me that language can be both unclear as well as clear and also funny. For example when we say: “I’m having an old friend for dinner,” does that mean that the friend needs to cancel the dinner appointment for fear of being eaten? Or does the expression have nothing to do with the actual dinner – it is simply one person, unrelated to the expected dinner guest, conveying information about the upcoming dinner to another person?

This is an example of a double entendre. The origin of the expression is supposedly French. However, the actual expression in French is double entente (or double meaning) which over time became double sens.

While Americans love double entendre (and many comedians specialize in these and other types of funny language), it does show how sophisticated language can be. (As another example, sophisticated is actually from the Greek sophistis (a wise man, master, teacher).

George Carlin was one expert in this type of comedy. Among his gems are: “This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free.

Or: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups,” (similar to the quotation by PT Barnum – one of the master showman of all time: “No one ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the American consumer.”)

And this gem: “It was a civil war.” Oh really? - “Excuse me, but I’m going to behead you.

Last Carlinism: “Ever notice that anyone going slower than you is an idiot, but anyone going faster is a maniac?”

A couple of double entendres that I’ve always loved: Man walks up to a woman and says: “If I said you have a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?” Or, ”I’d like to help you out, which way did you come in?

From unintended examples, mostly from newspaper headlines:

Miners refuse to work after death.

Children make nutritious snacks.

Miracle cure kills 6th patient.

Federal Agents raid gun shop, find weapons.”

Statistics show teen pregnancy drops off significantly after 25.”

And last: “Meeting on open meetings is closed” – this from my favorite bureaucracy: The Department of Redundancy Department.

Then we have expressions that simply do not translate from one language or dialect to another. You often hear that England and the United States are two countries divided by a common language.

Among my favorite examples are: In the U.K. a woman would say to a man if she wants him to call her: “Why don’t you knock me up?” Somehow something has gotten “lost in translation.

When you get off a plane at London’s Heathrow airport, you get on an escalator, which takes you to the lower level (to pick up your luggage). As you near the bottom, a sign is prominently displayed which says: “mind your head.” (I had not heard that people steal heads in what is always considered a very civilized country.)

Then we have misunderstandings as we go from one language to another: From the German: “Backpfeifengesicht” which means someone in need of being hit in the face. By the time you pronounce the word, your adversary has long departed the area near you.

German has a history of combining many short words into one long one: Numbers is one example: The number 7254 is in German: siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig.

Or how about this one, describing a triple hemispherical combustion chamber of an automobile engine: Dreifachhalbkugelverbrennungskammern. You walk into your local auto repair shop and say: Herr Schmidt would you please take a look at my Dreifachhalbkugelverbrennungskammern. By the time you’ve finished your question, Herr Schmidt has long ago left for lunch.

Last, is from my favorite Hollywood personality: Mae West: “I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it” or “Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can't figure out what from.”

I guess when I think of all these ways to get oneself into trouble, the next time I get pulled over for speeding I’ll grin and simply say if and when he frisks me, "You missed a spot..." After all, it’s probably late at night and I may as well enjoy the county’s hospitality for the evening.

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