Saturday, June 25, 2011


I Shall Become Bacon

Cecil Torr, Small Talk at Wreyland (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1918), p. 112:
A learned German told me that Thomas Aquinas was one of the most genial men that ever lived. (By a genial man he meant a man of genius). Being in Berlin, I went to see an antiquarian friend, who was a surgeon by profession. I was then at work upon the sort of book that Germans call a Corpus; and he said he hoped to get much information from my corpse.

I have made much worse mistakes myself. On a hot summer day at Ferrara I went into a cafe to see if I could get an ice. Instead of asking the man if he had got Gelati, which are ices, I asked if he had got Geloni, which are chilblains. Arriving quite exhausted at an inn in the Tyrol, I said I wanted the Abendmahl at once. The word means Supper, just like Abendessen, but is now used only of the Sacrament.

In all probability I shall never again say Thank-you to a German; but I find that, if I do, I must say Donkey's-hair. I fancied it was Danke-sehr, but am corrected by a girl from a superior sort of school near here.
Cecil Torr, Small Talk at Wreyland: Second Series (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1921), p. 83:
Foreign languages ought to be begun in nurseries, and not left for schools: all good linguists have begun by learning words in different languages as soon as they could speak. If children are only told that a certain creature is a cat, they will afterwards learn the word 'chat' as a translation of the word 'cat.' But if they are told that the creature is called 'cat' by some people and 'chat' by others, they are prepared to find that other people call it 'katze,' others 'gatto,' and so on. And they connect the creature with its foreign names at once, instead of indirectly through the English name. However, these nursery lessons are not always a success. I remember a Parisian who learnt her English from an Irish nurse, and always spoke it with a brogue.

Good linguists sometimes get confused, when languages have words with similar sounds but different meanings. Thus, the German 'nehmen' sounds like the English 'name' and 'dumm' like 'dumb' and 'bekommen' like 'become.' A man once said to me at breakfast, "I shall name bacon": then, seeing that I did not grasp what he had said, he hurriedly corrected it, "Ach, I am dumb. I shall become bacon."
I used to love the story that President John Kennedy, when he said "Ich bin ein Berliner," uttered the equivalent of "I am a jelly donut." Unfortunately, it turns out that his German was correct in every way, and any German speaker hearing him would have understood him to mean "I am a Berliner." I haven't seen Jurgen Eichhoff, "'Ich bin ein Berliner': A History and Linguistic Clarification," Monatshefte für den deutschen Unterricht, deutsche Sprache und Kultur 85 (1993) 71–80, who apparently vindicated Kennedy in this matter.

Related post: Elaborate Defence of Howlers.

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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