Too many vocabularies
English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. It is estimated that there are approximately half a million words in English, of which three hundred thousand are technical. This still leaves us with another two hundred thousand general English words. With so many words in English, it is no wonder that they often end up in the wrong context. Then there is the added complication of so many words having more than one meaning: homophones and synonyms. The following anecdotes are examples of English language students’ and my own vocabulary struggles: word use, misuse and abuse. As one language learner once complained to me: “Teacher, there are too many vocabularies in English.”
Un-plain English words More strange English is found in Thailand and illustrates the danger of picking words out of a dictionary and using them in the wrong context. A colleague who was traveling in Phuket found the following sign on a building: “House for the bewildered” - an interesting description of a mental hospital.
To challenge our students, we often ask them to explain certain vocabulary items they have come across in an article. Here are some examples from Taiwan.
Explain the following vocabulary in your words:
“our biggest-ever international project”
* our biggest international project for ever and a day
* An effect that runs into and ends at a side
* The power of produce
* A doctor who specializes in a surge
* A formal pretentious government official
Funny situations can occur when foreign words slip into an English conversation by accident. My Australian brother- and sister-in-law love dogs and have four of them. When one of them had a problem, the Dutch friend recommended to take the dog to the “dieren doctor” – literally the animal doctor. ‘Dieren’ is the Dutch word for animals. My brother-in-law replied: “Yes, dear doctors all right: they cost a fortune.”
Many foreigners take on English names, which is a real blessing for native speakers. Foreign names from some countries are difficult to pronounce and difficult to remember. At the same time we know that names are so important. Remembering someone’s name makes them feel special and shows that we care about them. However, new ‘English’ names can cause some concern. What do we do with students who call themselves ‘Golf’, ‘Pond’, ‘Pooh’, ‘Bomb’, ‘Apple’, ‘Nut’ or ‘Lick’? These are all actual names used by Thai students. Although we appreciate the fact that they do not expect us to be able to say their often very long ‘forin’, Thai names, I usually suggest to them to take a more common name. However, I have noticed that there can be a fair bit of resistance to change their name.
In the early 90’s, when thousands of Chinese students entered Australia, there were quite a few strange names around. Some of them were just picked out of the dictionary or from old movies. And so there appeared in my class a young Chinese girl by the name of Fanny. As she had very little English, it was too hard to explain to her that it was a very old name and that now the name had changed meaning. In American English it is your backside, but in Australian English this is the female counterpart of Dick. I referred her to one of our Chinese counsellors. Unfortunately she didn’t know the meaning of the name either, so I still ended up having to explain the problem. Thank God for bilingual dictionaries.
The changes to my name were easy to make, but what do we do with foreign names that have somewhat unusual meanings in English? Korean ‘Hee Gon’ and ‘Rong Wei’ and Chinese ‘Funny Pong’ are still cute, but ‘Hee Bum’, Chinese ‘Wan Ker’, Turkish ‘Yufuk’ and my Dutch university professor Simon Dik (‘dik’ means ‘fat’ in Dutch) are a little more controversial. Primary school children had fun with world champion swimmer Alexander Popov’s name: “Why did Alexander break the world record?” “Because he popped off (farted)” or “Because he had baked beans for breakfast”. In the mid 90’s, a Korean government minister by the name of Suk Bum committed suicide. As if this weren’t tragic enough, the Australian media had a field day with the man’s name. The Korean government was not impressed with the Aussie sense of humour. Luckily nothing came of it.
In June 2005, BBC World News announced that the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines had passed away. He had headed the church for almost 30 years and had been a major player in the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001. He was the son of a Chinese immigrant by the unfortunate surname of Sin. The problem compounded when Bishop Sin was promoted in 1976 and became Cardinal Sin. However, he was loved for his great sense of humour and used to invite guests to his house with “Welcome to the house of Sin.”
A few final stories about misunderstanding names: A Western expat rang the dentist to make an appointment for her daughter for a check-up. However, the word ‘check-up’ was not in the Egyptian receptionist’s vocabulary. So she asked that the request be repeated and then replied in a thick accent: “So your name is Check-up then?”
We had a good laugh when we were driving through Sharjah, a city north of Dubai, last year and saw a driving school car whose owner proudly displayed his name on the car in big letters: Mohammed Bin Kharbash – not a name to inspire confidence.
A friend of ours has a dog called Maha. One day she was picked up from home by an Indian taxi driver who seemed to love dogs. He was trying to attract the dog’s attention when our friend said: “She knows her name, but she is just ignoring you.” The taxi driver’s English was very limited and only understood “She-knows her name”. Interpreting it as “She-knows IS her name”, he subsequently tried to call the dog over to him: “She-knows! She-knows!”
Husband and wife were moving to a different house in Ras al Khaimah, a desert town in the north of the UAE. The Indian removalists knew a couple of words in English, but not the names of the couple. The husband was in the habit of calling his wife “Honey”. “Honey, where would you like this box?” The removalists were glad they now finally knew her name, and so the questions came from them all day: “Honey, where table?”, “Honey, bed upstairs?”
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