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Fun English

October 01, 2008

Flying...or frying...potatoes!

Masumi Muramatsu, Chairman, MM Cross-Cultural Forum

When former Democratic Vice President of the U.S. Al Gore made a slip of the tongue several years ago and overstated his role in creating the Internet, his Republican rival, former Vice President Dan Quayle, promptly declared that if Mr. Gore had invented the Internet, he had invented spell-check.

With this apt repartee, the ex-Veep, now an international businessman, who once amused all the kids and the teachers at a 1992 spelling bee (the equivalent of which in Japan would be a kanji characters contest) by adding an extraneous "e" to the word "potato," got even with his critical gallery who used to laugh at his verbal bloopers.

Spelling was one thing I wasn't bad at, if I do say so myself. In my days as a clerk-typist in U.S.-occupied Japan, I used to correct my bosses' spelling (for instance, they often put only one "m" in "accommodation," a very common mistake).

My first encounter with Mr. Quayle, electronically that is, was when he and Senator Lloyd Bentsen faced each other for a vice presidential TV debate. My job was to interpret simultaneously Sen. Bentsen's words for the Japanese TV audience.

When Mr. Quayle insisted that he had as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency, Sen. Bentsen famously struck down his claim by saying that he knew Jack Kennedy, he was a friend of his, and Quayle was "no Jack Kennedy."

Rendering this triumphant but cold remark into Japanese, in words and tone, I felt a bit sorry for Mr. Quayle, so dumfounded by its caustic nature that he was struck nearly speechless. I recalled that earlier he had been denied his self-analyzed similarity in physiognomy to Robert Redford by Redford himself, who was considerably to the left of Mr. Quayle politically.

Two years ago in September Mr. Quayle was in Tokyo attending the 40th anniversary of the Peace Treaty between Japan and the United States as the U.S. government representative. Some American friends of mine wondered how I would interpret him if he said that he was glad to be back in China, instead of Japan. People remembered that he said he wished he had studied Latin before visiting Latin America. I was relieved when his geography turned out to be all in order.

With the best of intent people say things they wish they hadn't. I once made a slip of the tongue and said "India" when I meant "Indonesia," and raised many eyebrows in the local press corps in Jakarta. But when one Japanese cabinet member kept referring to "America" all through his spontaneous dinner speech in Toronto (in the 1960s), I changed it all to "Canada" in my Japanese interpretation.

When it's a case of an honest malapropism and no offense is meant, an interpreter can subtly smooth it over without being noticed by anybody. And to the general well-being of all.

At Mr. Quayle's speech at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan luncheon, the only word of his that made me smile was "security blanket" which he quickly corrected to "security alliance," referring to the defense arrangement between Japan and the U.S. (I should hope this was not a Freudian slip.)

At the luncheon I managed to ask one of the last questions myself. When I said I couldn't spell the name of the firm he was on the board of directors of, other than the Aozora Bank, he cheerfully spelled out "Cerberus."

When I mentioned, in prefacing my question to Mr. Quayle, that "you said you invented spell-check," he interrupted me to declare "I did, I did!" in a most jovial manner. I am still not sure if he meant to say that he SAID so or he INVENTED it.

I asked Mr. Quayle: what would he say today to those unkind souls who badmouthed him. He replied, "Take a hike."

Apropos of spelling, Mark Twain said, "They (foreigners) spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce." The humorist of course was making fun of his own "innocents abroad."

As a keen student of English I have long prided myself on being able to spell "floccinaucinihilipilification" or "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"; but still sometimes hesitate before spelling the word "syrup" instead of "syllup." To the Japanese ear the difference between "l" and "r" is ever so subtle.

In the end, we all make mistakes. Let those who have not sinned throw the first stone ... or potato.

Masumi Muramatsu is the chairman of MM Cross-Cultural Forum, a nonprofit organization to encourage humor and English for smoother communication. He is also on the panel of judges for the Bikkuri English competition.

(This article was first published under the column name "You Can Say That Again!" on the Nikkei Net Interactive Web site, December 1, 2003)

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