On Wednesday I opted to take a day off from my beloved job editing the English Edition of EL PAÍS, so I could race through a freelance translation I had been commissioned to do. Like any good freelancer, however, rather than making good use of the luxury of this extra time, I spent most of my morning glued to Twitter – partly due to the political earthquake that was being unleashed throughout the country and partly due to the flurry of responses I was receiving to a tweet I had posted about making mistakes in another language.
When I moved to Madrid back in the year 2000, I only knew a few words of Spanish. The incredible social life I found in the capital, however, combined with my job as an English teacher, soon put paid to that and within a very short amount of time I was building up my linguistic skills. The Madrid of the early noughties was a non-stop fiesta for me, with a seemingly endless supply of house parties, discobares, nightclubs and after-hours – and thanks to a steady diet of San Miguel beer, and frighteningly strong whiskey-and-cokes, I had plenty of opportunity to practice my Spanish with the friends I made along the way, with very few inhibitions.
When you make one of these mistakes and people laugh, you will never forget it, and (unless you are my wife) you are very unlikely to make that same mistake again
One of the keys to the speed with which I picked up the language, in my opinion, was a complete willingness to make mistakes. Among the first of these, and one that still makes me laugh, was when I went shopping in my local market to buy some pasta. Being something of a fan of Italian food, I wanted some of those little ridged tubes – known to me, and Italians I gather, as penne. Imagine, then, the confusion and frankly shock on the face of the stall holder as I pointed at the packets on the shelf behind her and loudly shouted “¡Pene! ¡Pene!” Which of course means “penis” in Spanish.
And then there was the time while giving an English class that I misread my own handwriting and explained that “to trip” in Spanish was “pezonar” – basically I had created a new verb, “to nipple,” rather than what I wanted to say, which was “tropezar.” My mime of using my fingers to imitate legs stumbling along the table only heightened the confusion.
This of course also works the other way – my Spanish wife, who speaks English but appears to have abandoned all hope decades ago of actually improving her level – is an endless source of joyous linguistic malapropisms. If you ever get in an elevator with her don’t be alarmed if she invites you to “touch the bottom,” rather than the button. She also used to introduce my father, who was a solicitor, by saying: “This is Michael. He is a liar.” (Depending on your opinion of lawyers, that description may not have been too far off the mark.)
Even my three-year-old son is providing us with a few gems lately, our favorite being his insistence on saying “Monster fuck!” every time he sees one of those trucks with the massive wheels.
The point is that when you make one of these mistakes and people laugh, you will never forget it, and (unless you are my wife) you are very unlikely to make that same mistake again. I remember all my clangers from those early days in Spain and they helped me sort out my pollo from my cajones quick sharp.
And as the responses from my tweet proved yesterday, I’m not alone. Many people, whether they are Spanish or English learners, had a story to share. Here are some of the best I received. Who knows – they might just save you from making the same mistakes.
My grandad’s from a town outside Madrid & moved to Canada as a Doctor in the 50s, he used to ask the nurses for ‘fresh shits’ (he wanted sheets)— Nick Naughton-Rumbo 🎗 (@naughton_rumbo) March 10, 2021
On my first day of English classes here in November 1981, when I had no experience of Basque names, let alone their diminutives, an 18-yr-old girl walked in, sat down & calmly announced what I heard as "Hello, I'm itchy".— ChrisP (@Wordsmithgetxo) March 9, 2021
Lost for words is an understatement.
A colleague at Hays who @simoninmadrid might remember was once speaking to a client and tried to say "Te vuelvo a llamar". She accidentally said "Te vuelvo a mear". Such a small difference to a non native, such a significant one in reality.— Dottie (@Chris_Dottie) March 10, 2021
my friend was trying to find me in the park and i told her "estoy al lado de los pajeros"— Evan (@EvanDN4) March 10, 2021
My first year in Spain i remember coming back from the toilet in a restaurant and telling a waiter 'no hay sopa en el servicio'. He was pretty confused.— Eoghan Gilmartin (@EoghanGilmartin) March 10, 2021
I also had a language exchange buddy from the Canarias who informed me that "all the bitches in Lanzarote are black."
I have a reverse example from my missus. When in England, before we got together, she asked for cock instead of coke in a corner shop.— JusticeFingers (@Sound_Aspects) March 10, 2021
After blushing in confusion the lad there showed her a can of coca cola.
She said 'no, I need big cock' and did that hand thing fishermen do.
'I am going to brush my tits' is a golden one— Alan McGuire (@amcguirespain) March 10, 2021
Has made me blush a few times😝
A friend who wanted to buy goat cheese asked for "queso de cabrón".— Denise 💙 (@denwhitelam) March 10, 2021
Female friend arrives late and red faced for drinks in summer...— Paul Giblin (@paulfromhull) March 10, 2021
"Lo siento llegar tarde...he echado un polvo" (
as opposed to estoy hecho polvo) ;)
A Major in the Spanish army seemed in a good mood one morning, proudly stating that his wife had 'made him brestfuk'.— Matt (@Mattmadrid78) March 10, 2021
I spent my first six months ordering four “pezones de pollo” with the butcher never correcting me and just giving me pechugas until finally an older man behind me in line corrected me.— aaron (@sinefinevagi) March 10, 2021
We had a guest for dinner in the early days who introduced himself to my wife as Jorge. She spent the evening calling him HeeHaw.— Dottie (@Chris_Dottie) March 10, 2021
A student once told me, "Pardon me, Daniel, I must go take a shit from the printer."— Daniel Welsch (@madridESL) March 10, 2021
I tried to get him to say "sheet" for a few minutes, then gave up and taught him to say "piece of paper".
I’d been teaching my class sleep vocabulary, including the concept of ‘forty winks’. Then one of my students informed me in an essay that every day after lunch he had ‘forty wanks’...I gave him the benefit of the doubt.— Andrew Walsh (@andywgranada) March 10, 2021
My worst in Spanish was telling my teacher when I was close to completing a project that estoy en el recto final - I think she's still laughing.— Stephen Burgen (@stephenburgen) March 10, 2021
A (non Spanish-speaking) friend of mine courageously tried to order two beers in a busy Madrid bar. Except she asked for dos coños instead of cañas. True story.— Richard Baxell (@RichardBaxell) March 10, 2021
Had a customer in Tres Cantos who had a machine that was repaired once by changing the hard disk. From then on she’d call suggesting a “problem with hard dicks”— andy (@sombrerero) March 10, 2021
(1/2) My mum worked in an office in Madrid for a few months in the early 60s. She was asked to get some files from some drawers and thrilled her colleagues by asking: "Y dónde están los cojones?"— Sam Jones (@swajones) March 10, 2021
Asking my mother in law 'quieres mas polla?' Was mine.— JusticeFingers (@Sound_Aspects) March 10, 2021
I of course meant chicken, not cock.
I once asked students on a Monday morning what they did at the weekend. One said he spent all Sunday dogging. He meant perreando.— Ian (@SpainInTheArse) March 10, 2021
A colleague whose Spanish wasn't great once asked me why his students had laughed when he told them that "milkman" was "un repartidor de leches".— ChrisP (@Wordsmithgetxo) March 10, 2021
A friend who’s a British doctor in Spain once advised parents of a child with nits to “pasar el pene por el pelo tres veces al día”— Stephen Jermin (@SPJermin) March 11, 2021