Nov 11, 2011

Linguistic confusions

Recently I walked into a grocery store in the US, and picked up a box of readymade macaroni. I could not find any spoon or fork to eat it with, so I asked the cashier where I could find one. “Just go over to the bakery counter and ask for silverware” he told me. Now, I did not want any fancy silver cutlery, as I wanted to take the macaroni to college with me. All I wanted was a disposable plastic spoon, so that’s what I asked for. Later, when I researched the term silverware, I found that “silverware” means any permutation of knife, fork, and spoon, and it doesn’t matter what they are made of, whether plastic, silver or gold! To me that was one more addition to the list of confusing American words. Many other such words have previously confused me right from the day I landed in the US.


For example, the first time we went grocery shopping, our familiar vegetables bhindi and bhyanta surprised us, and not just because they cost Rs 100 Nepali per pau. Bhyanta or Baigun, which we are used to calling brinjal, was labeled eggplant, and bhindi or lady’s finger was labeled okra.

Where is the egg?

In fact, if we told anyone that we call okra by the name of lady’s finger, most people were very amused. Curd was called yoghurt and little white bodi that we call with the simple name of beans were labeled black eyed peas (I don’t know how they are related to the famous band).

Will the real Black Eyed Peas please stand up?

Just as we were getting used to the strange names for food, we found out that there were strange names for water too. In Nepal, a fountain usually means water shooting upwards from a lake or some pedestal. In the US, we got to know another type of fountain: a little metal tap that shoots water upwards for people to drink. This sort of fountain is usually found in public places.


In Nepal, these ingenious fountains might have gone with the simple name of the tap, but in the US, I found that even simple taps have strange names. Once I called my building manager to repair my leaking tap. When the repairman arrived, I refused to let him in because he said he wanted to look at my “faucet.” “I have no problem with any faw-set, thank you” I told him, wondering if I was pronouncing this strange object correctly. “I thought you had water leaking in your bathroom sink?” he said with his eyebrows raised.

Stylish faucet

I finally realised what he was talking about, and let the repairman in. Then I listened to him as he said he could repair anything from leaking “faucets” to stuck elevators. Now, it is common knowledge that lifts are called elevators in many parts of the world. However, I did not know that petrol is called gas in many parts of the world. When I first saw my friends stop at “gas stations” and fill up their cars with “gas,” I wondered if this was a new breed of cars that ran on butane. But no, apparently it was the short form of gasoline, and was equivalent to petrol (our short form of petroleum).


Meanwhile, cars kept producing more such confusing words. When I was loaded with groceries and looking for someplace to put it in the car, I could never get anyone to open the dickey, simply because they did not understand what I meant. Only later, when I was seated inside with a huge load of groceries on my lap, someone would take pity on me and ask “why didn’t you put them in the trunk?” But the most confusing car word of all was muffler. My American friends argued that muffler is an object used to muffle the sound of a car engine! And as for my woolen muffler, they insisted that it was just a normal scarf.

No, you can't wrap this around your neck

That argument was easily settled with a quick look at the dictionary, which gave both meanings of the word muffler. Both parties were right. But later I came across another type of neckwear where I was wrong. A friend of mine once told me that her boss had liked her pendant. “You mean this locket?” my friend asked her boss: “Is it a locket? Does it open up?” her boss asked. And that is how we knew that if it opens up, it’s a locket (to store photos in a filmy style, presumably) and if it doesn't, it’s a pendant (which is what most normal necklaces are).

Which is which? You decide

Much of my confusion with these words can be explained by the predominance of British English in Nepal. No wonder, considering that the British occupied much of the subcontinent and hobnobbed with Nepali royalty. Most people they associated with learnt British English, and the legacy remains to this day. Tap, for example, is a British word, and so is lift. A muffler (the car part and not the scarf) is called silencer in British English. In Nepal, most newspapers, TV channels, and other mass media still continue to use British English, and even the textbooks that we learn from in school prefer British English over American. As a result, words like okra and gas just don’t enter our vocabulary.

Published in Kathmandu post



jay said...

very informative !! i think the work okra is derived from our own nepali word 'bokra' hahaha

Anonymous said...

previous comment was very funny

sewa said...

and again, the comment id more popular than the article :(

Anonymous said...

am sure you did realize that there are no oranges here ;-)

Haris Adhikari said...


sewa said...

how could i forget the tangerines and clementines!! :P

Sajan Karn said...

So interesting writing it is! It reminds me of flash drive(pen drive)and soccer(football). Keep it up.


sewa said...

thank u sajan dai :)

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