Sometimes there’s nothing more surprisingly embarrassing than explaining what you would consider to be a commonly used word or phrase to someone who’s never before heard it in their life. I run into this all the time with my Vienna friends who are wanting to improve their English, and yet I still feel both embarrassed and amused when we run into a translation issue. This mainly happens with slang words and idioms, of course. I do my best to steer clear of those as I never want to mess up anyone who’s trying to learn English, but every now and again a “y’all” or “whatcha” slips out. Then our conversation takes a brief pause while I attempt to explain the weird sounding noise my mouth just made and why. I said “y’all” because I’m from the South and we’re too lazy to say “you all” so we shove ’em together to make one word. And then I have to explain why I just accidentally said “’em” instead of “them”. It gets tricky.
But sometimes it’s not all me. A few of my friends take English classes and afterwards bring me their classwork so they can ask questions. Almost every worksheet I’ve looked at includes some sort American idioms list which can be potentially helpful, but I feel like these lists do more humorous harm than good when there are no explanations of the idioms provided. For example, the first idiom I ever explained to someone when helping with their homework was “muffin top”. Used in a sentence, I think the worksheet said, “She’s always got an obvious muffin top.” That’s no help. My friend thought perhaps this idiom was referring to a hair style which was a really good guess in my opinion. But as good of a guess as it was, I couldn’t let her go back to the U. S. complimenting women’s muffin top-style hairdos, so I quickly explained the actual meaning of muffin top. She was very surprised by its actual meaning and laughed a lot, and then we moved on to the “birds and the bees” list of idioms her teacher had given her to learn and my face was most definitely red the entire rest of our meeting.
Another instance of embarrassment was during a walk in the city. I can’t remember what my friend and I were discussing, but for some reason I used “chicken” to describe someone. She had never heard of someone being a chicken before, because why would anyone be a chicken? This had never occurred to me – why we call people chickens when they’re scared:
Me: Huh. Umm… I dunno, actually. I mean people who are scared to do something – we just call em’ chickens. Like if you were too scared to talk to a boy, I could use that moment to call you a chicken. And if I really wanted to pressure you to talk to him, I’d start… (embarrassment hitting… now) err… clucking. Like a chicken.
Friend: So… you act like a chicken to tell a person they are a chicken?
Me: …. Yes?
Friend: That is strange.
Me: Yes I’m realizing that now. The latest word I’ve had to explain to someone is “selfie” which was personally unenjoyable as it is purposefully nowhere in my vocabulary. Though I’ve just read we can all
blame thank our Australian friends for the existence of this word.
In your time abroad, have you encountered something like this? Which phrase or word did you find yourself explaining?
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