Dutch Boo Boos
In my 20 years working with the Dutch, I have heard many a linguistic boo boo. But the other day, I think I heard the best one yet. I was teaching in one of the ministries in The Hague and one of my students told me how they had recently had a visit from their English colleagues. In true Dutch style, they introduced their English colleagues to the concept of a ‘borrel’ (not that the English are not familiar with a few drinks after work). One of my student’s colleagues gave a short speech then invited everyone to a toast to the success of the project. On proudly raising his glass to a room full of Dutch and English civil servants, he announced what he appeared to think was a typical English expression used when toasting: Up yours!
If you get the funny side of this, feel free to giggle. If you don’t, look it up!
Now what is the moral of this story? Firstly, I just had to share it. Secondly, it clearly demonstrates that no matter how good you are in other languages, there are a number of linguistic traps just waiting for the non-native speaker to fall in. These are known as ‘false friends’; and false they are indeed!
The definition of a ‘false friend’ (or cognate) is: words which sound or look similar in two languages, but have different meanings. Now because there are so many similarities between English and Dutch, it’s a minefield for many a Dutch speaker; of course, less of a problem for your average native English speaker as they are not exactly renowned for speaking other languages!
Dutch politicians have made their fair share:
(Joseph Luns to JFK):“I fok horses”, (Prime Minister Dries van Agt): “I can stand my little man”, (EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes): “Who says A, must say the rest of the alphabet” and “Don’t throw the baby in the water”,(Minister for Foreign Trade Lilianne Ploumen):“There is no such thing as a Dutch product in terms of quality!”, (Minister of Environment Hans Alders): “We should all become bicycles” (a German false friend!!).
Here are a few more I came across in the last few years and that you should watch out for:
- I am soliciting for a new job. (I’m afraid ‘solicit’ is usually associated with prostitutes. What is meant here is ‘applying’).
- My daughter is very brutal. (I hope she’s not a mass murderer! What is meant here is ‘rude’ or ‘cheeky’).
- Please sign the backside. (Whose bottom do you want me to sign??? What is meant here is ‘back’).
- May I thank your cock for the lovely dinner. (I hope not! What is meant here is ‘chef’ or ‘cook’).
- Are you famous in this neighbourhood? (I’d like to think so! What is meant here is ‘familiar’).
- This is not an exhausted list. (Yawn! What is meant here is ‘exhaustive’).
- I hate you all heartily welcome. (Well I don’t like you very much either! What is meant here is ‘A warm welcome to you all’ OR ‘I would like to welcome you all’).
- The doctor gave her a receipt for the medicine. (What is meant here is ‘prescription’).
… and I could go on, but will stop here. So, if you would prefer not ending up with egg on your face: if in doubt, check a dictionary. Here’s a useful online one www.macmillandictionary.com
Remember, it’s a minefield out there! Good luck.
(Okay one last one: “I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading this blog, and also from Peter’s bottom”).