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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Word Blunders Often No Laughing Matter

Every language student has one. The moment of ignominy that will live forever. The indelible memory of that one great big embarrassing mistake that makes the cheeks blaze when recalled.


I knew the minute I uttered it -- not because I recognized my error, however, but because I saw the reaction, that flicker of a change of expression. I'm sure you know that look.


Blessedly, Russians are not given to overreacting to the assaults that we foreigners commit on their language. The Tarzan Russian that I sometimes hear makes me laugh, but not the native speaker, who, no matter what, will try to make out what is being attempted and refrain from guffawing in the speaker's face.


O.K., O.K. So the person who heard my blunder did eventually laugh. But only later, when he was retelling it to his fellow waiters.


Let me explain.


I had just graduated in Russian, which meant that I had a pretty solid foundation but needed a lot more study and a lot more practice. Russian roots being what they are, I sometimes got confused.


At the time I was working as a tour director for an American travel agency, and the 20 members of my group, seated at the breakfast table, were dying to know what they were about to have for breakfast. So I walked over to the waiter and asked him. Somehow I suspected it would be the same thing as the day before.


There are two breakfast words in Russian that are very similar -- yaichnitsa (omelette) and yaichko which can mean small egg but also means testicle. You can guess which one I inquired about. If only I hadn't preceded it with the adjective goryacheye (hot).


To this day I don't remember what his answer was, nor do I remember what we ate for breakfast.


Well, it could have been worse. A friend of mine broadcast her mistake over the airwaves.


Victoria was being interviewed by Georgian television, and part of the discussion concerned American customs and traditions. When the conversation turned to Thanksgiving, Victoria went through the routine about the good harvest and the Indians and the pilgrims sitting down to a feast. Unfortunately, the banquet she proceeded to describe was ghoulish.


My yedim tykvu, kukuruzu i indeitsa she reported with a bright smile. In her elegant Chanel-style suit, with her sleek ballerina bun and regal bearing, Victoria hardly looked the part of a cannibal. Indeitsa? the interlocutor asked in disbelief.


Victoria nodded, then began to wax nostalgic about the delicious taste of pumpkin, corn and Indian.


What she meant to say, of course, was indyushka, turkey. Thankfully, the goof was cleared up before she could launch into recipes.





Robert Coalson is on vacation.