Once upon a time I rode one of Mexico’s excellent buses from Cancun to Merida, just for the heck of it. If you don’t know, Mexico has a bus system that should make Greyhound hang its head in shame: Seats that recline nearly all the way back in case you want to snooze; movies; “flight” attendants; and they’re not only inexpensive, they’re very punctual. And you meet some very interesting people on those buses. But this isn’t about the bus system, it’s about language faux pas.
You see, attached to the bus above the windshield was a sign written in both Spanish and English that said:
Those of you who have hung around in Mexico long enough to know the difficulty some Mexicans have in pronouncing the letter “S” when it begins a word will understand why that tickled my funny bone. But of course that tickling goes both ways.
For instance, a Mexican friend of mine in Cabo once offered to let me use her office as a return address for mail I sent home, on the theory that I was more likely to successfully receive mail in return that way. She worked in the Sales Office at a big company, so I duly noted that up in the left corner of the envelope:
OFICINA DE VENTANAS
When she saw it she attempted not to smile and gently told me, “I don’t think we have an Office of Windows…”
Well heck. I meant Oficina de Ventas. “What’s a couple of extra letters between friends?” I opined out loud. I imagine she still smiles about that.
And there was my initial difficulty in keeping sound-alike words straight. More than once I asked a maid for a bar of soup (sopa) or ordered soap or Japan (jabon, Japon) with my eggs instead of ham (jamon)…
Here are some tips to help you avoid common language pitfalls:
- If the person you’re addressing doesn’t understand English, talking louder won’t help.
- The word Deportes on a building doesn’t mean that’s where authorities take you if you’re being deported (it means “Sports”).
- The phrase “Paradas Continuas” on the back of a bus doesn’t mean “Continuous Parades” (it means “Frequent Stops”).
- If you want peaches (duraznos), you don’t want to ask for naked men (desnudos).
- If you are hungry (tiene hambre), it won’t do you any good to ask for men (tiene hombres).
- And rolling those double “R’s” can sometimes be very important; if you mean to say "Me gusta su perro" (I like your dog) and don’t roll those “R’s” you might find yourself being misunderstood as saying "Me gusta su pedo" (I like your fart).
And here’s a biggie: Try to avoid the seemingly compulsive inclination to add the letter “O” at the end of every English word, thinking that will make it understandable. This can cause general hilarity in some cases. Example: If you’re a man who’s embarrassed about something, never ever say “I’m so embarrassado!”
Unless, of course, you really ARE pregnant…