One time, when I was learning Arabic in the Army, I said something incredibly vulgar and insulting to my Egyptian professor.
His name was Wasfy and we all really liked him. Short, round, and prone to making wild arm gestures, Wasfy reminded us of some Middle-Eastern prince’s distant cousin with a Napoleonic complex. Imagine Lewis Black with a deeper tan.
I hadn’t meant the obscenity, but he’d asked me a question in Arabic and I’d answered him with what would’ve clearly been throw-down words in Egypt, judging by the way his eyes bugged out and the cartoon-purple shade of his face. Frozen by his sudden ferocity, I stared back in utter shock, my heart pounding all the way to my ears.
The room went silent.
He glared at me for a few seconds before softening his eyes. His normal color returned as he took a deep breath. You could see his mind working through the situation: Okay, she didn’t say it on purpose… there’s NO WAY she could’ve known that…
Twenty arms in camouflage immediately darted toward their English-Arabic dictionaries as Wasfy quickly insisted “No no no no,” put his hand on my neighbor’s book and gently pressed it back down onto the desk. Wasfy paused for a moment before softly reconjugating my verbs then resuming the day’s lesson as if I hadn’t just said what I’d said.
Of course, the moment he left, we all scrambled to figure out exactly what I’d told him and I believe we did, though I’m not planning on repeating it here. It was pretty rude.
To this day, I’m surprised by our instructors’ reluctance to teach us anything vulgar in the Arabic language, considering I was an interrogator who was bound to hear it at some point.
And to this day, I’m reminded how easy it is to make a misstep in a foreign language. Languages are so complex. It takes years of experience to understand all the little nuances in all the different contexts of putting together words.
So now I try to be sympathetic when watching my kids stumble through the English language. It’s all new to them… so many words, so many shades of meaning. It’s just a matter of time before they stumble into something inappropriate.
And when they do, parents learn to not make a big deal out of it. Because the kids won’t think about it too much unless you start freaking out. Still, it’s tough sometimes to figure out how to act casual about something you really hope your kids won’t repeat.
Like the other day, when Brontë renamed her octopus.
At the moment, my four-year-old daughter is really into 1) naming stuffed animals, and 2) talking about whether someone is a boy or girl.
Her little sister Bridget got an orange stuffed-animal octopus from Disneyland. It’s Hank, from Finding Dory, who is, by the way, a pretty cool character. Well, Brontë was playing with Hank the other day when we had the following dialogue:
Me: You have Hank the Octopus!
Brontë: No, his name isn’t “Hank.”
Me: What is it?
Brontë: He has lots of legs with bumps on them.
Me: Yes, tentacles.
Brontë: Tinter-coles? They look like bumps and horns.
Me: They do!
Brontë: His name is “Horny.”
Brontë: He a boy, just like the movie. Horny is his name.”Horny the Boy.”
Me (trying hard to keep my face neutral): I really, really think his name is Hank.