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The fun of being wrong

A little English can lead to a hilarious situation. People unfamiliar with the language often express themselves in strange ways, writes Karan Thapar.
None | By Karan Thapar
PUBLISHED ON JUL 30, 2006 12:02 AM IST

Have you heard the phrase a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? Well, a little English can lead to a hilarious situation. People unfamiliar with the language often express themselves in strange ways. Their intended meaning may be clear but what they’ve actually said is deliciously and delightfully different. Kris Srinivasan, a connoisseur of such stuff, has sent me an email that had me in splits. Let me share it with you.

It seems hotel notices often get their English wrong. For instance, a bar in Tokyo claims: ‘Special cocktails for the ladies with nuts’. On its executive floor, the hotel proclaims: ‘You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid’. But it’s not just Asiatics who can’t handle the complexities of the Anglo-Saxon tongue. Consider this notice in the lobby of a Moscow hotel: ‘You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday’. Unfortunately, the Swiss are no better. This was found in a hotel in Zurich: ‘Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose’.

I thought the Scandinavians knew English well but this sign from a cocktail lounge in Norway suggests otherwise: ‘Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar’. However, the English doesn’t improve as you head south. The Budapest Zoo states: ‘Please do not feed the animals — if you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty’. In Rome, a doctor’s office states: ‘Specialist in women and other diseases’. A nearby laundry advertises itself as follows: ‘Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a goodtime’.

Oddly enough, former British colonies fare no better. If you thought British rule ensured a good grasp of English think again. A restaurant in Nairobi says: ‘Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager’. A dentist in Hong Kong maintains: ‘Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists’. Even in our own dear Bombay you can find a restaurant which claims: ‘Open seven days a week and weekends too’.

My favourites come from two countries where there’s no reason to expect fluency in English. A tourist agency in the Czech Republic offers its services with the following promise: ‘Take one of our horse-driven city tours and we guarantee no miscarriages’. And then there’s this advertisement for donkey rides in Thailand: ‘Would you like to ride on your own ass?’

Now, the only thing that can better a mistake is famous people expressing themselves with a certain twisted pithiness. If the incorrect notices are funny, this is pure wit.

Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, once said: “Sometimes, when I look at my children, I say to myself ‘Lillian, you should have remained a virgin’.” Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s wife, is credited with the following: “I had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: ‘No good in a bed, but fine against a wall’.”

Mark Twain was brilliant at this sort of thing. Try this: “Last week, I stated this woman was the ugliest I had ever seen. I have since been visited by her sister and now wish to withdraw that statement.” Here’s another: “Be careful about reading health books in case you die of a misprint.”

Not surprisingly, some of the wittiest comments have been made by the Brits themselves. For instance, Winston Churchill once said: “Don't worry about avoiding temptation. . as you grow older it will avoid you.” WC Fields: “I never drink water because of the disgusting things fish do in it.” Spike Milligan: “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.” And, finally, Groucho Marx: “I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.”

This time my favourites are the ones that take something out of context and change its meaning. For instance, Victor Borge : ‘Santa Claus has the right idea. Visit people only once a year’. Or Socrates : ‘By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher.’ And Joe Namath : ‘Until I was thirteen, I thought my name was SHUT UP’.

Oh well, have a great Sunday!

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