„Playing with words“, or „has the pundit punned it? “

To get the New Year off to a good start, today it’s guest blog time again from my very clever and often funny husband!! It would be ideal if you are multi-lingual 🙂



(Another DH-contribution the world has not been waiting for…

Having married into a family of linguists, teachers and translators, accumulating basically all Western European languages except Portuguese in our clan, it is not really surprising that language and playing with words are important parts of our lives. We love making puns and mixing expressions from various backgrounds to the point where family conversations at Christmas dinners would fly back and forth by simply giving each other the cue for the next punch line. When we pointed out to our then 10 year-old daughter that she might also have daddy’s gene for puns, she replied quite naturally that “of course; I am a papagena”.

Papagena(I would happily credit this picture but the site is in Russian – which I don’t have! Should the original photographer like to get in touch in a language I understand, I will be happy to add to this caption!! Beautiful Papagena, though…)

Though we all do it, our brains seem to work rather diversely from one another: My DW literally “sees” a word i.e. she always has the (correct) spelling of a word in front of her mind’s eye.  Where I struggle to control the various spellings and meanings of a mostly harmless word like “program” (or “Programm” in German, “programme in French” and “programme” in British English, as long as one does not refer to executable computer code, because for this even the Brits use “program”), it is always crystal-clear to her, which is which. As my brain, on the other hand, seems to be organised according to phonetics, I can stumble over little trip wires in basically every sentence. Why, for example, does my brain in the last sentence “seem” to be organised where it could also “seam” to be organised…. or maybe not.


I will happily play with words that more or less sound similar and throw them into meaningless but (sometimes) funny constructions like “Jews choose chews over juice” or “Hugh uses your U, ewe!”. As if this was not bad enough, I might also invade on other languages.  “Le dinde d’Inde” does not really bear any meaning apart from the general assumption that turkeys might be fostered in India and – should they end up on a French Christmas dinner plate – might be the proverbial “dinde d’Inde”.  But it sounds cute (or qute?)…

Drawing on an international vocabulary can sometimes lead to unexpected or unwanted results which are greeted with perplexity and astonishment by native-language audiences, as only the twisted minds of the x- or cross patriot can follow the multi lingual muddle unfolding in their ears. One little story that my DMIL likes to tell is that of a native German-speaker who was fluent and accent free in English. However, on one rare occasion that lady gave away her roots as she talked about “two-eyed twins”. Of course, everybody would hope that the siblings in question were in good health and would indeed have two eyes. The unintended pun came from her brain taking a short-cut to her native language where “zwei-eiige Zwillinge” (stemming from two eggs/cells) is the official term for non-identical twins. As the German “Ei” (egg) is pronounced exactly like the English “eye”, the body parts of the poor children got somewhat mingled. (Good job they were not Scottish then? Aye)


Experts can take these multilingual mix-ups to a level where whole stories are told. One of my favourites is the following: (To be read in a Bavarian voice apart from the fat italics which are to be pronounced the English way).

Englisch is a merkwüadige Sprooch:

“I” hoasst “I”,

“Ei” hoasst “egg”,

“Eck” hoasst “corner

und “koaner” hoasst “nobody”. 9364477-easter-egg-with-bavarian-flag-on-a-white-background


Some people said that it would only take me two words in any given language to either get me into trouble or to make a pun. I lived up to this statement when I visited Peru for the wedding of my friend and best man. Later, the whole family and we five guests from Switzerland sat around the TV watching the video of the celebrations the week before. When the film came to a scene where the car convoy turned up the candle-lit driveway from the main road to the bride’s house, I spoke the only two words of Spanish I knew to describe the situation: “Sendero luminoso”. Meaning “shining path” this was an absolutely correct comment on the picture in front of us. However, also being the name of a Maoist terrorist organisation in Peru and the words being spoken by a strange gringo from la Suiza, the roars of laughter of my Spanish-speaking hosts were immense. All it took were two words….

candlelit pathCandlelit Path by jazzylolo {Lauren Kennedy Photography} on Flickr

Aye aye

12 thoughts on “„Playing with words“, or „has the pundit punned it? “

  1. Hooted when I read sendero luminoso! We are mainly French/English speakers though I have a reasonable command of Spanish and in my days working for a Swedish bank learned to read balance sheets and P&L accounts in most nordic languages including Finnish. Conversation in those languages was rather stilted and lacking in range of vocabularly – there is only so much you can say about one’s tangible assets without getting into hot water.

    However, it’s the unexpected that makes me laugh – like “Soft Verge” by the side of the road in the UK. And I am afraid that my puerile potty humour also extends to Einfart Verboten.

    As to “seeing” the words. I cannot at all, I can feel them and, oddly enough as I am 50% deaf, “hear them in my head” but I cannot see them at all. I have synaethesia and have colours for the days of the week, months of the year and some words and numbers (not all and I have no idea why some have colours and some don’t). The really wierd thing for me is that the same words have the same colours in English, French or Spanish.

    • Ooh yes, synaesthesia is a fascinating thing, how interesting to read your comment on the same words/colours in different languages! Amazing.
      It is interesting and often amusing that having several languages enables a certain understanding of other languages you have no command of, so that I have found myself reading and listening to Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Portuguese or Rumanian, for instance, and getting the gist. Not Finnish, though!! I would love to learn some other languages, first and foremost would be Räto-Romansch, the language of the eastern mountains here in Switzerland, it’s a tantalising mix of Italian, French, German and… 🙂

  2. I have a feeling you’d like Bananagrams, a game I was given for xmas. It’s a little like rapid-fire scrabble – just make sure you agree which dictionary (or dictionaries!) you’re using ahead of time. Our multilingual group got a little muddled – we could check (or banish) the Turkish & Dutch but American & Scottish were harder to handle!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s