What are the funniest-sounding English words to speakers of other languages?
August 23, 2007 9:42 AM   Subscribe

What are the funniest-sounding English words to speakers of other languages? If you grew up speaking another language (for some weird reason) what English words still make you giggle?
posted by paul_smatatoes to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I've been told that 'gorgeous' sounds ugly.
posted by creasy boy at 9:44 AM on August 23, 2007

posted by The World Famous at 9:44 AM on August 23, 2007

And I've been told that 'orangutan', if you pronounce it the way I do: orang-utang, is a laugh riot.
posted by creasy boy at 9:45 AM on August 23, 2007

Like any language, it's not the words so much as the turns of phrases and colloquialisms. If you find yourself "chomping at the bit," make sure you're not headed for a "wild-goose chase."

Compound words, taken literally, are also funny. A "butterfly" has nothing whatsoever to do with dairy products moving through the air of their own accord.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:06 AM on August 23, 2007

A portugese woman I met was very amused by "duck", as in the bird.
posted by electroboy at 10:18 AM on August 23, 2007

I like the opposite approach. "Flipped out" in German is pretty funny - ausgeflipt
posted by chickaboo at 10:20 AM on August 23, 2007

shishkabob in Russia.
posted by fake at 10:20 AM on August 23, 2007

i was in germany a while back, and they had trouble/got a kick out of saying 'squirrel' and 'towel'. a squirrel stole my towel
posted by Gregamell at 10:22 AM on August 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

A Somali friend of mine cracked up at the word "puke". He walked around all day at work, mumbling "puke...puke..." and giggling.
posted by wafaa at 10:26 AM on August 23, 2007

I lived in Latin America for years and never knew a Spanish speaker who could get "wrought iron" out without laughing.
posted by enjoytroy at 10:38 AM on August 23, 2007

posted by parmanparman at 10:39 AM on August 23, 2007

Cool Papa, it was originally called a "flutterby", which, taken literally, makes alot of sense.
posted by lain at 10:51 AM on August 23, 2007

my (spanish speaking) partner (who is otherwise a very smart individual, i promise) finds the sentence "the nose knows" very amusing.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:55 AM on August 23, 2007

I once had an Austrian friend laugh heartily at my guacamole instructions: mash an avocado until it is "mushy." She explained that mushy sounds like a German slang word for the female genitalia. Perhaps some of these phrases are funny because of how they translate?
posted by hsoltz at 11:03 AM on August 23, 2007

I had a Spanish roommate who had a hilarious time with the word stapler, partially because he had a lot of trouble pronouncing it.
posted by perpetualstroll at 11:05 AM on August 23, 2007

posted by bluebird at 11:09 AM on August 23, 2007

I have always been fond of the way the word 'kerosene' sounds in English.
posted by msali at 11:13 AM on August 23, 2007

Payday sounds like peidei (I farted) in Portuguese. Several students got a laugh out of that.
posted by dmo at 11:29 AM on August 23, 2007

My high school Spanish teacher found the word "wool" particularly gigglish--and we asked him to say it often, because it sounded pretty damn funny to us too.
posted by rhoticity at 11:41 AM on August 23, 2007

My Argentine friends found the word "goggles" hugely amusing and would say it as often as they could. Which was often.
posted by Rumple at 11:46 AM on August 23, 2007

posted by LordSludge at 11:55 AM on August 23, 2007

A couple Spanish (as in Spain) friends of mine giggle whenever they hear "insipid." It is a cognate in both En and Sp, but for some reason they think the way we (or at least I) say it is funny.
posted by Brian James at 12:02 PM on August 23, 2007

posted by daravida at 12:11 PM on August 23, 2007


Cool Papa, it was originally called a "flutterby", which, taken literally, makes alot of sense.

Not according to the OED:
f. BUTTER + FLY; with Old English buttorfléoge cf. Dutch botervlieg, earlier botervlieghe, modern German butterfliege. The reason of the name is unknown: Wedgwood points out a Dutch synonym boterschijte in Kilian, which suggests that the insect was so called from the appearance of its excrement.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:21 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

second puke. poop is funny whether you're foreign or not, it's just inherently funny. Russian has a lot more funny words than english. Russian really sucks for technical terms though, and is generally hard to speak fluidly, as in, very demanding..
posted by rainy at 12:42 PM on August 23, 2007

My husband thinks the word "pumpkin" is amusing.

For me, he sounds hilarious when he says "penguin". I look forward to hockey season because I hear him say it the most then.
posted by czechmate at 12:49 PM on August 23, 2007

creasy boy: that's because it comes from two Malay words, "orang" and "hutan" ("man of the forest") so hearing anyone say it the way you say it makes us Malaysians laugh at your Western ineptitude. :P

For me it'd be "puce". Just sounds weird.
posted by divabat at 1:37 PM on August 23, 2007

Personally, I firmly believe "teetotaler" is one of the funniest words ever conceived in any language.

For French speakers, "douche" is a laughing riot.

Oh, and us Spanish speakers always have fun with the word "constipated". Every Spaniard I know has, at some point, made seemingly puzzling remarks about the cold weather being somehow related to the state of their digestive system.
posted by doctorpiorno at 2:33 PM on August 23, 2007

"Butterfly" was not originally "flutter by" - that's a false etymology and one which doesn't even make much sense if one knows much about how these sorts of words form. As in most Germanic languages, the suffix "-fly" was appended to many other roots to describe insects which, well, fly. For instance, the Icelandic word for a "bee" is really a "bee-fly" in that language, if I'm not mistaken.

There's a dispute over the origins of the "butter-" part, which may or may not refer to butter (some of these theoretical origins relate to the idea that the creatures were witches who stole butter, the color of a common species and the color of the insect's excrement.)

As a native Bosnian speaker, I always found "helmet" to be a funny word, though I can't describe why.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:15 PM on August 23, 2007

Not exactly on-topic, but there is actually a song in an Amitabh Bachhan movie about the inconsistencies of English pronunciation – as in P-U-T is "put" but B-U-T is "but". When I was a little boy it was hilarious to think about it. Hindi, Urdu is much more WYSIHYP (what you see is how you pronounce).
posted by raheel at 3:29 PM on August 23, 2007

"A mown lawn."
posted by ludwig_van at 5:04 PM on August 23, 2007

When I was small and new to the English language, my English-speaking cousins and I were playing a game of hide-and-seek, where I was the seeker. I had found every one of my cousins except one and was having trouble. One of my cousins asked, "Give up?" I said, "What?" He said, "give up?" and that repeated for about ten times.

I was so confused at what "give up" meant. It sounded like a whole word to me, but it also sounds like a sound that would accidentally escape your throat during a hiccup or something.
posted by nakedsushi at 5:13 PM on August 23, 2007

There are a couple of words I really find strange and funny sounding:

sloppy/droopy, and pretty much every word with a double o.

Language is a funny thing. After almost 20 years speaking English every day, I still have two words that I just can't get right:

1. Wrist - because in Swedish the word "vrist" means "ankle".
2. The letter "E" - because in Swedish if you say "eee", that's the sound of spelling out the letter "I". Makes taking messages at work a huge pain...
posted by gemmy at 5:15 PM on August 23, 2007


*giggles to self*
posted by miz brown at 5:15 PM on August 23, 2007

"chomping at the bit"

that would be "champing at the bit".

As a kid I spent a lot of time laughing at the word `barf' when an American student at my primary school told me. I had never heard it before.
posted by tomble at 6:06 PM on August 23, 2007

I was in choir with two lovely women from Korea when I was in college, and I realized during a rehearsal for a Christmas concert that they were calling shepherds something different. SheFerds. Ha!
posted by santojulieta at 6:21 PM on August 23, 2007

I have to agree that spelling out vowels when you're speaking a mixture of english and dutch, in my case, can be confusing: talking about the game company EA it sounds as if you're spelling out IE.

The way an r in english sounds like a vowel makes words that consist of r's and vowels, like 'roar', very strange and hard to understand.

Idiomatic expressions are always a source of wonderment and confusion between languages and it's an easy amusement or mistake to make to translate idiomatic expressions literally. Here are some examples of idiomatic expressions seen from a foreign standpoint:
You can say that again - I have to say it again?
He takes the cake - He's hungry?
That's not my cup of tea - Whose is it then?
It looks like rain - Is it watery?

To see the, admittedly weak, humour of these literal translations you have to speak both languages:
Make that the cat wise (=I don't believe you)

For a while it was popular to translate tough streetwise slang from hiphop and rap literally. Which is totally ridiculous. Hé, moederneuker! Broeder van de wijk!

And then there's the the joy for small children of words that sound the same but have a very different meaning in your own language. When I was seven on holiday in Ireland I was indignant that this man was saying things to my dad about my mother like "is your broad not with you today?". My father explained he did not have punch the man because 'wife' does not equal 'wijf'.

There are sniggers to be had for childres from decent english words that sound like indecent dutch words;
"bill" in english = "buttock" in dutch
"cut" in english = "cunt" in dutch
"lull" in english = "dick" in dutch
posted by jouke at 2:51 AM on August 24, 2007

childres children
posted by jouke at 2:53 AM on August 24, 2007

The sentence "I buy pink sheets" kind of sounds like "aj baj pink skit" if you say it in swedish which then sort of translates back into "ouch poo pee shit". And that is, of course, hysterical if you're in kindergarten!
posted by soundofsuburbia at 6:52 AM on August 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Soundofsuburbia: I recall that the full version of that phrase is "I buy pink sheets for a kiss" though I can't for the life of me recall what "kiss" is a homophone for in Swedish...
posted by mjbraun at 8:02 AM on August 24, 2007

This isn't English per se, but "Mazda" never ceased to sound dirty to me. (I'm Russian.)
posted by qvtqht at 12:56 PM on August 24, 2007

Brilliant question, by the way. I'll post more when I remember them.
posted by qvtqht at 12:57 PM on August 24, 2007

Exchange between me and my then-girlfriend, fresh-off-the-boat Danish girl:

me: The movie was good, but the effects were pretty cheesy.
her (puzzled): "Cheesy?" You mean... like... cheese??
posted by LordSludge at 1:07 PM on August 24, 2007

though I can't for the life of me recall what "kiss" is a homophone for in Swedish

Same as "pink", it's a homophone for urine/to urinate, although even more widely used.
posted by gemmy at 6:20 PM on August 24, 2007

i asked this same question of an indian cab driver once. i brought it up because i'd recently encountered the indian girls' name POOJA, which of course is kind of unfortunate in english. he told me it was a very respectable hindu name that means "an offering to god".

in return, he said the english surname LUNN translated as a vulgar slang for "penis" in his language (which was, i forget, maybe hindi?). he then giggled and told me that on his first day of north american cab-driving school, the teacher introduced himself as jim lunn, and an entire roomful of prospective cabbies burst out laughing. for the rest of the year, he said, they teased each other: "what exactly is jim lunn going to teach you tonight?"
posted by twistofrhyme at 3:30 AM on October 12, 2007

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