Of Quill Pigs and Hand Shoes

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.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:


13 thoughts on “Of Quill Pigs and Hand Shoes

  1. English is not my ex’s first language and every now and then he would inadvertently say something funny. One time he was trying to tell me about someone speeding on the Interstate, but he said, “He was fasting down the highway….” It sure makes sense but just doesn’t work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, it makes total sense.
      So do most of the things I say that other people don’t understand. Because my husband speaks German, he usually knows what I mean, but I have to remind myself that others won’t. What I find interesting is that they won’t usually ask about what I just said, even if it makes no sense to them.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. Ha ha those were some funny language mishaps! 🙂 I can relate to you – I am from Nepal (Nepali is my mother tongue) and I speak English and Polish fluently. I also learned a little bit of Finnish but I don’t remember much. When interacting with my Polish boyfriend, I make mistakes all the time. Usually I translate from English to Polish though – just yesterday I asked his dad if the garlic go bad after few days. The literal translation of ‘goes bad’ to Polish didn’t make sense to him at all. There are many such incidents. What I find most amusing about the Polish language is the genders – for everything – they refer to a dress as if it’s a female etc. I find it amusing because neither English nor my language Nepali has gender for objects.
    Great blog post, Tanja! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for stopping by and for commenting, Pooja. We could probably write entire books about the mistakes we have made while learning a foreign tongues!
      German nouns also have three genders! This is difficult for native English speakers to relate to. At times, they make sense, but often they seem completely arbitrary. I hope you will continue to have fun with your Polish.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A lovely and humorous insight into the intricacies and vagaries of language. I find slang one of the hardest things to master in a non-native language since so often the phrases have other meanings than their literal ones. For instance, in French “Je ne suis pas dans mon assiette” means “I’m not myself” although it literally translates to “I am not on my plate.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are absolutely right. I hadn’t even considered slang. Thank you for the example above. It reminds me of a German expression. “Du hast nicht alle Tassen im Schrank” (literally: you don’t have all your cups in your cupboard) could be translated as “you are a little crazy” or “you don’t have all your marbles”.
      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am cracking up! I would love to see a quill pig haha. I imagine it is not easy to learn English. English has a way of confusing even the native speaker. Your little guest is adorable, if only it wasn’t so stinky!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.