Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

I'm off to Fucking for Christmas

Language began to truly evolve about 3.5 million years ago when our hairy ancestors climbed down from the trees and began experimenting with survival on two feet. They began to live in larger and more complex social groups and needed language to clarify roles and behaviour and for protection.

Over the next few million years, enough sounds were generated by lungs, tongues and vocal chords to fuel the 7000 living languages we have today. As you can imagine, there is quite a bit of duplication. There are only so many sounds/words you can create in your oral cavity… just ask the parent of any four-year-old.

Some, like huh? and okay, exist in almost all languages. Ma and pa and even kaka or caca are found in many languages. But many words and names are not only false friends (faux amis), but also hilarious and embarrassing friends.

For example, falling over and spraining (tordre) your wrist (poignet) in Stockholm could be a sorry affair. In Swedish, the word vrist means ankle (cheville).

The expression, beware of Greeks bearing gifts, refers to the Trojan Horse and means don’t trust your enemies. Germans are especially suspicious of anyone carrying a gift (cadeau). The word gift in German means poison. This explains why German tourists pose for photographs in front of gift shops. And why we see throngs of tourists in front of the world’s most photographed (and most stolen) sign which welcomes visitors to the village of Fucking near Salzburg in Austria.

Americans are more prudent when it comes to small town sex. They have the sleepy town of Intercourse in the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania.

The French have their own special little village of Montcuq.

The word bae, meaning lover or darling, finished a close second to the verb to vape in the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year 2014. The word was popularised in a music video by ‘Happy’ hip-hop man, Pharrell Williams. Some Danish, however, find the song more crappy than happy. Bae is a slang term for poop, shit and a well-known Brazilian footballer.

That didn’t take long did it? We’ve quickly descended from the higher realms to the nether regions. Warning: It gets worse.

The English word fart (pet in French) appeals to the 11 year old school student in most of us. In Danish, fart means speed (vitesse) which means the country is littered with signs like this: Fartkontrol, ifart, fartzshumper, Middlefart, badfart, fartpilot.

Closer to home, the Ticino rail transport system is known as FART (Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi).

If you are embarrassed it’s time to leave the page. However if you are embarazada (Spanish for pregnant) we wish you a wonderful birth.

The Thai and Indian language were safe from English ridicule in their original script form. But not so in Roman script. Thai names such as Choosak, Damrongsak, Porntip, Terdsak and Supaporn, can be found in most towns and cities such as Bangkok, Bang Sue, Ban Sukchoke and Ban Pornpis. There are more than a billion Indians, which allows room for names such as Vishal Boob, Jayant BhattDeepa Dikshit, Deep Pant and Indra Kant Singh, and Arpit Bomb.

In Swedish the word for finish and exit is slut, which in English is a generally derogatory term for a woman with many sexual partners (salope or pute in French). Slutspurt, as you know, means final sale (vente finale). Kiss, in Swedish means urine .

Brand names also sometimes get seriously lost in translation.

The Microsoft search engine Bing sounds very much like sick (malade) in Chinese.

Siri, the voice of Apple means cock (penis) in Georgian.

Nokia had linguistic experts check 84 dialects before launching their Nokia Lumia Smartphone. Nevertheless, for many Spanish, lumia is slang for prostitute.

Sega, the Japanese video game corporation, is an Italian slang term for masturbation.

When Young Boys Football Club opened their new stadium in a Berne suburb in 2005, an inspired journalist made the following headline: Young Boys Wankdorf Erection Relief.



See you next year. A very Merry Christmas to you.

Thank you to the following for their support, ideas and feedback during 2014:

Cyril, Trudi, Philippe, Addison, Alexandra, Dino, Valerie, Emily, Stéphane, Laure, C. A, Simon, Dom, Daniela, Mary, Marton, Richard and Richard, Pierre, Renaud, Ben and Niels.

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