"Guys! Check it out! The English term for it is..."
March 25, 2014 8:31 AM   Subscribe

There's no shortage of articles online that take the basic form "here are awesome non-English words and phrases that are hilarious and/or that English doesn't have a direct translation for". Examples: A German slang term for low-back tattoos is "Aarsgewei", which translates to "ass antlers". Also in German, the term for eating because you are sad is "Kummerspeck", which is literally "grief bacon". The Finnish word for pedant, pilkunnussija, translates as "comma fucker". I'm curious about the flip-side, like a non-English-speaker being amused that low back tribal tattoos are called "tramp stamps" in the US. What English words or slang terms are amusing to speakers of foreign languages in the same way that I find some of their terms amusing and/or awesome?
posted by rmd1023 to Grab Bag (54 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
I once knew someone from Russia who thought "nincompoop" was the funniest word they'd ever heard (and I can see why!)
posted by lovableiago at 8:34 AM on March 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

We were unable to satisfactorily translate "plumber's butt" for my Hungarian speaking mother-in-law. That is, we could explain to what it referred and from whence it came but it mostly just made her frown and shake her head.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:43 AM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Aarsgewei is Dutch, not German (Kummerspeck is, though)
posted by gijsvs at 8:44 AM on March 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

posted by Tom-B at 8:45 AM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

gijsvs: thanks for the correction! Going forward, I will attempt to correctly attribute antlers of the ass.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:50 AM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is sort of an opposite-opposite, but there's a health magazine in Germany called "Gesundheit," because, of course, it's their word for "health." I never met a German who could understand why I found that magazine so amusing.
posted by Etrigan at 8:52 AM on March 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

The Italian writer Italo Calvino was fascinated by the word "feedback".
posted by bleep at 9:00 AM on March 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

My Japanese and Chinese coworkers were vastly amused by the word "bromance" and found good use for it. I love "muffin top" which I learnt from my American roomie - very evocative!
posted by monocot at 9:06 AM on March 25, 2014

(the German for Aarsgewei is Arschgeweih. Germans seem to find the GB equivalent "tramp stamp" highly amusing)
posted by runincircles at 9:12 AM on March 25, 2014

Kinda cheating because it originates in German, but my students always love "schadenfreude." They usually don't have an exact equivalent in their home languages, but they IMMEDIATELY grasp the sentiment.

"Comfort food" is another one that they enjoy.
posted by wintersweet at 9:30 AM on March 25, 2014

Happy Hour
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:39 AM on March 25, 2014

I can't find it, but I seem to remember that Jorge Luis Borges was fond of the English word "showbiz," and how much was wrapped up in it.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:42 AM on March 25, 2014

Our Dutch exchange student loved y'all.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:44 AM on March 25, 2014

"Sorry" is a good one.

Where in most languages, to apologize you need to admit some form of fault or responsibility or at least agency in whatever it is that went wrong. When you say "I'm sorry," all of that is delightfully ambiguous as you could be doing any of those things but you could also simply be expressing amorphous regret that the wrong thing happened.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:47 AM on March 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can't find it at the moment, but last year(?) a story circulated widely in the news about the apparent popularity of 'shitstorm' in German.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:55 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Shit hitting the fan" or "hurrying up and waiting" are good ones
posted by Blasdelb at 10:14 AM on March 25, 2014

I'm American so I have no idea how well it travels, but cockblocking is one of my favorite words.
posted by Jacen at 10:17 AM on March 25, 2014

I've also seen something being "the bees knees" cause befuddled amusement
posted by Blasdelb at 10:20 AM on March 25, 2014

I've a soft spot for something being described as the dog's bollocks (and the mutt's nuts in politer company).
posted by humph at 10:23 AM on March 25, 2014

Having to explain the term "camel toe" to a Venezuelan led to a very amusing conversation on the beach.

(NB: the predominant Vz women's fashion at the time generally included a quite pronounced camel toe, across all ages and body types).
posted by toxic at 10:25 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was working overseas with a Bulgarian. Whenever he'd ask me something, and I replied "You bet," he'd giggle. I don't know if this is because he found the phrase novel, or if it's because it sounded like something else in his native tongue. I kept forgetting to ask.
posted by Alaska Jack at 11:40 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

We were unable to satisfactorily translate "plumber's butt" for my Hungarian speaking mother-in-law.

In Spain it's called a hucha ("coin bank").

I can't find it, but I seem to remember that Jorge Luis Borges was fond of the English word "showbiz," and how much was wrapped up in it.

"El mundo del espectáculo" or "el mundo de la farándula" are quite the mouthfuls and don't have the crass-commercialism undertones of "showbiz".
posted by sukeban at 12:20 PM on March 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

We also have coinslot here, which might be amusing.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:47 PM on March 25, 2014

Maybe not amusing, but the word "feeling" has made its way into Chilean Spanish (possibly due to a so-named ice cream bar with the tagline "Cuál es tu Feeling?"), which maybe scratches an itch that sentimiento does not.
posted by psoas at 1:10 PM on March 25, 2014

Wittgenstein, a high-born Austrian, was amused by certain English expressions which he made a point of overusing. One was the English adjective "bloody", addressing postcards "Dear old blood" and signing them "Yours in bloodiness". Another was the American phrase "Hot ziggity", which he exclaimed when presented with a meal.
posted by Beardman at 1:13 PM on March 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

I have heard that one of the most beautiful English words to foreign ears is "diarrhea."
posted by Rhaomi at 1:21 PM on March 25, 2014

When I taught English in Brazil, students would be flummoxed by words like "twelfth."

"Not enough vowels!" They would say.
posted by ambrosia at 1:26 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

A friend who spoke English as a second language said that our collective nouns were very funny to her, especially "a pack of wolves" which she said made it sound like something you would buy in a supermarket.
posted by capricorn at 1:30 PM on March 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

posted by under_petticoat_rule at 1:40 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hot ziggity what a great thread!
posted by wittgenstein at 2:11 PM on March 25, 2014 [18 favorites]

German DJ Flula has several videos on Youtube where he expresses his bafflement at English idioms like party pooper, letting the cat out of the bag, and yes, camel toe (among others).
posted by O9scar at 2:13 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

A crowded room = nuts to butts.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 2:40 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

My Norwegian friend likes "SNAFU" especially when it's in all caps like that (first ran across it in a business meeting and was like "...what?"). He's also amused by compound animal names like "catfish" and "firefly," just from the mental picture I guess.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:41 PM on March 25, 2014

Okeydokey is (surprisingly) an American slang you hear used in Scandinavia quite often.
posted by three blind mice at 2:56 PM on March 25, 2014

Sexile: to deny someone's access to his dorm room because his roommate is having sex.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:24 PM on March 25, 2014

Idioms tend to delight and fascinate. My students from Japan loved "in a pickle."
posted by Temeraria at 3:57 PM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

The old-fashioned derogatory slang "old bag" struck a French friend of mine as particularly hilarious once I explained it to him. (We happened to be watching Looney Tunes in English with French subtitles, and I think there was an untranslated sight gag where a woman temporarily, literally turned into a bag labeled "OLD BAG".) "Qu'est que c'est, 'vieux sac?'"
posted by usonian at 4:33 PM on March 25, 2014

When my brother was living in Scotland with a bunch of international roommates, at some point they were talking about animal noises in their various languages. He told his French roommate that roosters say "cockadoodledoo" and his roommate found this SO UNBELIEVABLY HILARIOUS that he called a bunch of his friends and made my brother repeat the sound.

In one language -- Dutch, maybe? -- apparently cows say "boo" and when my brother asked what ghosts say he was charmed to learn "why, booboo, of course!".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:04 PM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

In regards to "sorry": I have also run across the Americo-British use of "Please" and "Thank You" to be fairly amusing to many foreign service industry workers.

And the sounds that other people's animals make seems to be universally hilarious, an excellent way to make friends with small children (no, no, the chicken says "bul bul" not "cluck").
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 6:56 PM on March 25, 2014

Not quite what you're looking for, but the word 'scheissenbedauern' (shit-regret) is often listed as a hilariously specific german word (for things that are crappy, but not as crappy as you were sort of hoping they'd be) but afaik it was invented by an American journalist.
posted by Sebmojo at 7:07 PM on March 25, 2014

For the record, the German "Kummerspeck" means weight gained/body fat acquired by increased eating due to sad or negative affect, not the process of eating. You would say about someone/yourself that his/her/your extra mass was Kummerspeck.
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 7:52 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

And as if on cue, Mental Floss just published this piece. "The rabbit died" is one that's nearly out of circulation, but it is kind of insane.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:17 PM on March 25, 2014

My German friend was tickled as hell when I said that we'd "play it by ear." He's been using it at every opportunity since he first heard it.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:50 PM on March 25, 2014

Belly Button!
posted by calgirl at 10:34 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Lying sack of shit" has gotten me some laughs.
posted by atchafalaya at 12:52 AM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

My Korean informant reports having been delighted — in a discovering-a-gap-I-never-knew-I-always-wanted-filled kind of way — upon learning the English word "procrastinate". (Another Korean suggested 밍기적 minggijeok as having the same meaning, but it apparently means just "dawdling", without the idea of putting things off.)
posted by stebulus at 1:14 AM on March 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of my Chinese exchange students thought "ladybug" was hilarious.

"Why isn't it a gentleman bug???"
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 1:59 AM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just asked around my German office, and what I was told were particularly funny/strange were:

"Have your cake and eat it too" -- because it makes no sense as a statement, but the sentiment conveyed is useful.

"When the shit hits the fan" -- for being evocative and vulgar

"I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole" -- Why the pole? Why ten feet?

"absail", "rucksack" -- Seeing them in print raises the question, 'When did this book randomly switch to German'

Also offered to me by a friend in Slovakia, "roughhousing", "horsing around" and "horseplay", as well as appreciating/enjoying that English has native words for "merkin" and "buttplug".
posted by frimble at 6:43 AM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Once I was about to sneeze or had a runny nose or something and accidentally used a literal translation of "I've gotta blow my nose" which prompted fits of laughter from my mum. Turns out, "cleaning your nose" is the right German phrase and "blowing"... Well using that in German in front of her felt icky without me being able to pinpoint quite as to why. Turns out, "blow job" ("blasen") is pretty much the only time "blowing" is being used (other than blowing out candles, but then "pusten" is more common).
posted by mrsh at 7:09 AM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and another of my Korean informants was quite tickled by the term "half-assed".
posted by stebulus at 9:54 AM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Tom-B at 1:20 PM on March 26, 2014

This may not be exactly what you are looking for, but my Spanish-speaking students always found "cock-a-doodle-doo" hilarious. But their roosters said "kikirikii", which is even funnier. And don't even get them started on "neigh" vs "niiiiiiiiiiii".
posted by lollymccatburglar at 1:28 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love the Irish phrase "put it on the long finger" - more or less to postpone something indefinitely.
posted by *becca* at 1:33 AM on March 27, 2014

The Twitter account for NPR's Code Switch currently has a lot of great answers for a similar question.
posted by divabat at 1:47 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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