Throw those (under)pants out the window
by Leslie Woodford
Sometimes, even when you speak the same language, certain words have different meaning in different countries. The two stories below illustrate how these differences lead to confusion and sometimes embarrassment.
When I was little, we moved to the Solomon Islands. On the eighteen hour flight, I colored and read joke books, played with the plastic wings given out by the flight attendants and many other things to keep myself occupied. I was especially excited about all the jokes that I learned from my joke book.
After we arrived and had moved in to our new home, I started school. I wanted to impress the other children and to make friends, so I offered to tell the class a joke. The teacher invited me to stand in the front of the classroom. I asked:
"Why did the man throw his pants out the window?"
The class looked on in silence. No one responded. I waited to give my punchline the greatest impact, then finished the joke:
"Because he heard the newsboy yelling 'Free Press.'"
No one chuckled. No one even cracked a smile. I explained, "'Free Press' get it? He was talking about the newspaper, and the man thought he meant he could get his pants pressed."
The students looked at me silently. Finally, the teacher stepped in and asked, "Pants? Do you mean trousers?"
"Yeah, sure, I guess." It wasn't a word that I had ever used.
"Because we usually mean 'underpants.' When we say 'pants.'"
I was mortified. I was seven years old, and I'd just stood in front of the class and talked about underpants. What a way to make a first impression!
I took a little consolation out of a story told to me by a friend from New Zealand. She was serving a mission for our church. As a young single woman, she committed to give full-time service for eighteen months. Prior to her service, she spent two months in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah. As part of her commitment she would not date men, but would focus all of her time to missionary work.
While in the MTC, she and her companion went to the small bookstore. Anne looked around the store for a needed item, but could not find it. So she went to the cashier and asked, "Where are your rubbers?"
The cashier looked at her strangely, so she repeated the question a little louder, "Where are your rubbers?" Again, the woman did not seem to understand her. By now, she'd caught the attention of some other missionaries--young men--who were giggling at her. Embarrassed she gave up.
As she and her companion left the store, she explained what had happened, proclaiming loudly that she had asked for the "rubbers" as they passed another group of missionaries. She heard laughter and saw surprised looks on their faces. Her companion also looked surprised, so Anne elaborated, you know, to "rub out your mistakes."
Her companion shushed her and explained that in America, "rubber" is a colloquial word for "condom." She then supplied the commonly accepted word: "eraser."
Stay in Touch with Language Lore ezine
Want to stay in touch? Subscribe to Language Lore, our internet language learning email newsletter. This free ezine facilitates your language learning journey. See our back issues here.
Go to your email now to confirmation your subscription. If you don't see an email within an hour (check your junk mail folder too), please contact us. We respect your privacy and never sell or rent our subscriber lists. If you want to get off this list later, one click unsubscribes you.