Thursday, January 9, 2014

Language Laughs.....

I am a quiet but ardent fan of etymology.  In simple terms, it means I love words and how they came to be.  The dictionary explains etymology as the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.  As someone who probably reads more than I sleep, I'm easily swept away by perfect prose, poetic descriptions and exquisite turn-of-phrase.
Language has always fascinated me - the threads of commonality between different languages and how some words - albeit spelled differently - clearly come from the same word.  For example, the word 'sugar' looks and sounds almost identical in more than ten languages:

French - sucre
Turkish - şeker ("shek-air")
Icelandic - sykur
Lithuanian - cukrus
Latvian - cukurs
Estonian - suhkur
Finnish - sokeri
Norwegian/Danish - sukker
Swedish - socker
Hungarian - cukor
Czech - cukr
Slovak - cukor
Slovene - sladkor
Polish - cukier
And let's not forget the Hebrew word for sugar which is סוכר, pronounced "sukar".   
I teach a little bit of etymology to my piano students when teaching them musical terms and expressions.  One musical term is called 'ritard' and it means to slow down.  Of course, I get a couple of snorts and muffled laughs whenever I say the word out loud, but then I asked them if they've ever heard the word before.  They often roll their eyes and say something along the lines of, "yeah, like when you call someone a retard."  I then explain that when referring to someone as a retard, besides the fact that it's a nasty thing to say to anyone, you're basically saying that that person is slow.  That he's not moving at the same speed as everyone else.  Then I point to the music, where the word 'ritard' or 'rit' is written - usually at the end of a piece, and then their eyes light up.  They get it and now it somehow makes so much sense.
But leaving etymology on the side for now, we all have had those laughing-until-you're-crying moments when our kids have said the funniest things by simply using the wrong word or pronouncing it incorrectly.  I was playing Bananagrams with my kids one Shabbat afternoon, using the anagrams version of the game.  Basically a bunch of tiles are put out in the middle of the table and you have to find a 4 letter word from the tiles displayed in order to "take" the word.  The person with the most tiles wins.  So a bunch of tiles are in the middle of the table and one of my kids grabs four tiles - F O R N.  I asked them what word they were taking.  The child replied, "Forn.  You know, like a forn exchange student."  I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard.  And before you bash me for laughing at my kid, you know you would have too.
My grandmother, taking cues from me, her first grandchild, continued to call macaroni, 'racamoni' until the day she died, since that was what I called it when I was all of two.  Being an immigrant from Europe, she never remembered which word was correct, so she stuck with racamoni, since that word was stuck in her memory.  When my youngest was a toddler, she used to point at the butterflies flying by and would call them 'flutterbys', which, when you think about it, makes much more sense than it's given word.  I've always wondered whether someone working at Oxford's might have made a clerical error when the word was first entered into the dictionary.  It's much more believeable that the insect would 'flutter by', as opposed to what now comes to mind - a stick of butter with wings attached to it....
My son, being the only XY chromosome besides my husband, is constantly surrounded by everything female.  From unmentionables hanging in the shower, to the plethora of hair and make-up products that line the bathroom counters, he is not a big fan of female paraphernalia and whatever goes along with that.  One day, about 5 years ago, I was taking my kids out and one of my girls was in a horrific mood.  Temperamental and moody with a death-stare that could bring you to your knees, you could almost see the smoke coming out of her ears.  My son, sitting in the front with me, leaned over while I was at a red light and whispered conspiratorially, "I know why she's in a bad mood."  I glanced over at him.  "Oh, yeah?  Why is that?" I asked.  He leaned in closer.  "I don't know exactly what it is, but I've heard them talk about it. I think she has RPG.  You know, that thing that women get every once in a while."  Thank G-d I was at a red light.  I would have crashed the car. 
Making pronunciation and grammatical mistakes in one language is funny enough.  Throw two languages in the mix and you've got a recipe for the giggles.  I think in English - it being my mother tongue - and as such, am always translating my thoughts into Hebrew, which explains why I speak Hebrew rather slowly.  When I was recently in Toronto for a visit, I spent a lot of time in the hospital with my grandfather z"l.  I was often the only one present when the doctors came in for either rounds or to check on his status, and being able to talk in my native tongue - especially about medical terms and jargon - was a relief.  Living in Israel, there are certain activities that I do in Hebrew without batting an eyelash - grocery shopping, mall shopping, ordering gas delivery etc.  But I'm still on shaky ground whenever I have to deal with anything medical.  My medical Hebrew is not up to par and I'm always nervous that they don't quite understand what I'm saying and that instead of giving me the appropriate migraine medication, they're giving me some kind of special cream for athlete's foot.  
Being English speakers living in Israel, there are hundreds - if not thousands - of funny incidents where language plays a major role.  My father, looking for popcorn in the supermarket, could not figure out how to say the word in Hebrew, so asked a clerk where תירס נפוח (bloated corn) would be.  They laughed right in his face.  Of course, that was after he asked for a שעועית בצורה של חלק בגוף (bean in the shape of a body part) and then pointed to where his kidneys would be.  But you gotta hand it to him, he's certainly creative!  I'd definitely want him on my team if we were playing Charades...
When we first moved to Jerusalem, my brother had come for a visit and I was taking him on a walking tour of our neighborhood.  After a little while, he pointed to a spray-painted sign on the side of a building that spelled מקלט (shelter) and said, "wow, there are a lot of makolets (markets) in this area!"
The funniest, by far, happened to my husband, who - in my humble opinion - speaks Hebrew like a native.  With an almost perfect accent, an admirable vocabulary and a good command of Hebrew idioms, he still slipped up.  Big time.  He was once talking to a native Israeli who told him about the sale of these beautiful עציצים (small plants/bushes) at the local nursery.  He then blanched and asked her to repeat the word for small plant or bush.  When she asked him why, he started to laugh.  He told her about the time - six years earlier - when he went into a nursery to buy just that, but thought the word was slightly different.  He entered the nursery and asked the woman working there if she could show him the nicest ציצים she might have.  Apparently, he had asked to see her breasts.  Not just her breasts, but the nicest breasts she might have.  According to my husband, she didn't bat an eyelash, didn't call the police to have him arrested for sexual harassment, and surprisingly, didn't even correct him.  She just smiled and showed him an array of beautiful plants.