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by Richard Lederer, Ph.D.

The language barrier

Say you're munching on escargot in an outdoor café in the south of France. When the garcon asks you how your meal is, you put your thumb and forefinger together to flash him the OK sign. He storms out of the room. Why? Because in the south of France our OK hand signal means "zero, worthless."

While the curling of the forefinger and thumb into a circle is the best-known non-vulgar hand gesture in the United States, you could end up wearing your dinner in your hair in Mexico, where it means "sex," or in Argentina, Brazil, Greece, Malta, Paraguay, Russia, Singapore, Spain, and Tunisia, where the OK sign refers to certain body parts and constitutes an insult.

So, OK is not OK, everywhere, OK?

Now let's place the shoe on the other foot. Here are some other cross-border translations that turn out not to be OK in English-speaking countries:

In a Japanese fashion magazine appears "JOYFUL ENGLISH LOVELY" printed beneath a cartoon of Bambi. Much of Japanese commercial English, also known as "Engrish," is English Lovely or English Charming, or English Confusing.

A T-shirt carried this actually poetic passage of English Lovely:  "This wants to show the continuation of a dream for them, even if the day which bursts into flames even if it rains and a wind blows and a calm night are the ends in the world."

Where can I buy that shirt?

A Nagasaki coffee shop sports the Placebo Labor Handbag. Other Japanese establishments display monikers such as Ghastly Custom Shops, Ox-Creation Beauty Parlor, Business Incubator, Tomato Bank, Café Feel, and Café Aspirin.

Believe it or not, there's a soup made in Japan called The Goo, a line of cosmetics named Cookie Face, rolls of toilet paper identified as Naïve Lady and My Fannie Print, and an antifreeze branded Hot Piss. Proof that the Japanese have a love affair with all things English can be seen in their signs and brand names — Great Coffee Smile, the Bathing Ape, Acid Milk, Booty Trap Jeans, Sweet Camel Jeans, Love body, X-box, Snatch, Catch Eye! Catalog Shoppping, Ministry Candy Stripper, and Hawaiian Plucked Bread.

The ad copy for a brand of bread baked in Tokyo announces, "All contents are no additional. It's burned to a crisp with all our heart," and an ad for a calendar heralds, "Skin clock for those wishing to become a dog." Among Japanese ad lines we discover "Number worth plentys mean," "Happy is he who other men's charms beware," "A frolicking pure spiritual existence out of the blue," "No stagnant emotion," "Girl meet boys," "Violence jack off," "Look at reality, walk straight ahead," and — typical message printed on a Japanese shopping bag — "Now baby. Tonight I am feeling cool and hard boiled."

The Japanese take on English doesn't stop there:

A greeting card message:  For you, I always think of your thing.

A hotel sign:  Come on My House

Sign for rest rooms:  Go back toward your behind.

On a motel:  Pleasurable and gratifying rooms.

In a restaurant window:  Please do not bring outside food, excluding children under five. Thank you.

In another restaurant:  Please Keep chair on position & Keep tables cleaned after dying. Thanks for your corporation.

In yet another restaurant:  Persons eating restaurant using cell will be eliminated.

In a hotel:  Maid-tipping is generous for services. More is better.

Wake-up message from the front desk of a hotel:  Your time is up.

Sewerage treatment plant as marked on a Tokyo map:  Dirty Water Punishment Place

On a package of drinking draws:  Let's try homeparty fashionably and have a joyful chat with nice fellow. Fujinami's straw will produce you young party happily and exceedingly!

An Indian speaker of English wrote, "Dear madam:  It has been awhile since we have had intercourse. I hope you have been in good hygiene." Any implications that the Japanese have cornered the market on world class-bloopers are completely unwarranted. With all due acknowledgment of our own shortcomings when it comes to foreign tongues, here is a celebration of signs and other written English that provide an unexpected source of amusement for travelers around the world. As an ad for a Mexican English-language school promises, "Broken English spoken fluently."

— In a St. Petersburg, Russia, brochure:  Be sure to visit Senate Square and look at the Copper Horseman, a beautiful erection of Peter the Great

— In a Florentine glove shop:  Our gloves can be washed in soup and water.

In the window of an Istanbul souvenir shop:  Sorry, we are open.

In a Taiwan hotel room:  Please beware of strangers dangling in the lobby.

— Taiwanese advertisement for men's underwear:  They're comfartable!

Name of a store in China:  Sexual Health Thing Shop

Name of another Chinese Store:  Warm and Fragrant Bird

— In an African safari park:  Elephants please stay in car.

— On an Asian charter airline:  Do not smoke when you get into the toilet. Do not throw foreign bodies in the toilet.

In the window of a Laundromat in Chiang Mai, Thailand:  For best results, drop pants here.

Name of a store in Thailand:  Pay All You Can

In a Mexican brochure:  Come to Juan's Jewelry Shop. We won't screw you too much.

— In a German hotel:  Serve You Right

— On an Indonesian menu:  Amiable and sour pork

In the washroom of a German train:  To obtain water, move the handle to the left or to the right, indifferently.

On a Chinese train:  Please do not throw yourself out the window.

— In a Budapest zoo:  Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.

— Doorway signs in the Nigerian National Theatre:  "In Entrance," "Out Entrance"

Ad in the Jakarta Post:  FOR RENT: Condom. Only $650US

Notice in a public bathroom in Florence, the cradle of the Italian language:  This WC is goof for everyone. Would you like to come back using it? Collaborate with education. Don't throw bodies solid into toilettes! With gracious thanks, the Direction.

The Hall of Fame of Global Gabble:

In a Bucharest hotel lobby:  The lift is being fixed for the next day.

In a Hong Kong supermarket:  For your convenience, we recommend courteous, efficient self-service.

In a Tel Aviv hotel:  If you wish for room service breakfast, lift our telephone, and the waitress will arrive. This will be enough to bring your food up.

— In a Cairo tourist office advertising a donkey ride:  Would you like to ride on your own ass?

In an Acapulco restaurant:  The manager has personally passed all the water served here.

From The Revenge of Anguished English by Richard Lederer. Copyright 2005. Courtesy St. Martin's Press.

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Articles in this Issue

Reversing the Culture of Destruction, by Anthony M. Tung
Family of Man, by Marc Mewshaw
Aural Photographs, by Alissa Tallman
Historic Williamsburg, by T.M. Pugh
Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte
Entomology, by Michelle Wilson
Home Economics, by John Darling
Linguistics, by Richard Lederer, Ph.D.
February 2008


Richard Lederer, Ph.D., is the author of more than thirty books on the English language, including Anguished English, A Man of My Words, Comma Sense, and, most recently, Word Wizard. His syndicated column Looking at Language appears in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and he frequently appears on radio as a language commentator. He lives in San Diego with his wife, Simone van Egeren.

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