When young, I read Beano magazine and its character Desperate Dan made a big impression, particularly his liking for ‘cow pies’.
These days I enjoy The Oldie, specially its politically incorrect cartoons. This month, one article was about funny mistakes from foreigners mangling English on notices. I laughed at the Taiwanese shampoo labelled: “Use repeatedly for severe damage.” Then the electric wire-cutters from China, with leaflet warning: “Before use, please read this instruction for god’s sake.”
It reminded me of howlers spotted when travelling in the past, before increased security made it so stressful. In this time of growing suspicion and hostility to foreigners, it’s good to recall the funnier side of culture clashes.
Greek menus in English were a reliable source, with ‘Roast Lamp’ (rather than lamb) my favourite. Even that, however, was put in the shade by a huge painted sign on the gable end of one Greek butcher’s, proclaiming: ‘We sell vile chops. ’ (You can digest that one yourselves!)
In Hong Kong hostels I struggled to get an English breakfast, with ‘Boiled eggs and toast’ being just that – two cold, hard-boiled eggs and a round of equally cold, unbuttered toast; or a Sunday roast, with ‘Roast chicken and vegetables’ being a whole roast chicken, surrounded by a handful of tiny tinned carrots, diced potatoes and peas.
However, I made blunders too. When asking in Cantonese on a tram for change of a note into coins, my poor pronunciation turned out to mean I was demanding ‘linseed oil’.
A Chinese word sounding like ‘guy’ could mean chicken or street, depending on its high or low pitch. So, foolishly, I asked often for a “roast street”, or directions to the nearby chicken.
Perhaps the best advice for us all, however, was a notice to guests on a Singapore hotel’s bedroom wall: “You are politely requested to maintain your self-respect”.
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