Every foreign language student has put her foot in her mouth. I recall several such situations. Now I can contemplate them with an air of amusement, but then they were exceedingly embarrassing.
Years ago, during a visit to Alaska’s Denali National Park, I enthusiastically told a couple on a hiking trail that I had just seen a quill pig. I was slightly puzzled when they did not appear nearly as excited as I. When I caught up with my husband a few minutes later and informed him about my encounter, he held his belly and wiped tears from his cheeks. Turns out I had called a porcupine a quill pig, the literal translation of the German term, Stachelschwein. Only recently did I learn that the German who first named them was not alone in not being fazed by the fact that porcupines aren’t pigs. Turns out that porcupine is derived from the Latin porcus (pork) and spina (needle or quill).
We are easily entertained by engaging in similar linguistic exercises. Next to quill pigs, our bestiary is populated with nose horns (from Nashorn, for rhinoceros), Nile horses (from Nilpferd, for hippopotamus), and wash bears (from Waschbär, for raccoon). We don’t limit our verbal play to animals. Hand shoes keep our fingers warm in winter (from Handschuh, for glove), and hoof irons prevent horses’ hooves from wearing out (from Hufeisen, for horse shoe).
A recent visitor to the yard prompted us to resume our game. Though it is technically nocturnal, I happened upon this handsome hunk with a reeking reputation rather early in the morning, when it was vacuuming the area at the foot of our bird feeders for leftover morsels from the previous day’s feeding frenzy. This reputation was immortalized in the creature’s name, without any attention to its attractive appearance.
Meet our odiferous, malodorous, but oh, so gorgeous, guest, the stink animal (from Stinktier, for skunk).
I would love to hear about your favorite foreign words, or about your favorite foreign language bloopers.
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