In the lobby of a hotel in Costa Rica in February of 2010, I was startled to see a magazine with the bold title, "Western Ass". My initial reaction was, "Has someone left a pornographic magazine in the hotel lobby?" It proved to contain stories of the American west, written in German. I assume a German guest had left it in the small hotel library (as our vacation progressed, I encountered a substantial number of German tourists).
I took a picture of it, which you can see to the left. You can click on it to see a larger version, and then in most browsers, click on it again to make it larger still. Then use your browser's "Back" button to return here.
Upon my return home, I tried to figure out what the title meant. But in my best German-English dictionary, the only meaning of "ass" was a verb, the preterite (simple past tense) of "essen", "to eat" (so that "Er ass" in German means "He ate"). It took a lot of searching on the web to come to the conclusion that in Austrian German, "Ass" means "ace", as opposed to "As", with only one "s", in standard German ("Hochdeutsch"). It can refer to the ace in a deck of cards, but also to someone who is skilled, as in "He's an ace shot." Note 1
This episode reminded me that words in any given language, in either spoken or written form, can have different meanings in other languages, and that sometimes these other meanings are amusing, particularly when they turn out to be vulgar. And that, in turn, reminded me of an event I witnessed many years ago.
Margie and I were with our children, viewing an outdoor exhibit in front of the Boston Aquarium, along with a very large crowd of other visitors. A man appeared at the back of the crowd, and when he got close enough to see over the heads of the onlookers, he suddenly started repeating, in a very loud and excited voice, what seemed to be the well-known "F-word", the most serious (and most commonly used) English obscenity. This angered many of the bystanders, particularly since there were a lot of children in the crowd. But then, as the man's wife and children came up behind him, he started speaking to them excitedly in French, and the crowd calmed down when it realized that whatever he had said, it had not been intended to be English.
Once I realized that he had been speaking French, I knew what he had been saying. The outdoor exhibit in front of the Boston Aquarium was (and still is) a display of harbor seals (phoca vitulina), and the man was saying, "Phoques! Phoques!" (the final "s" is silent). This just meant "Seals! Seals!". Seals belong to the genus "phoca", so the word for "seal" (the animal) in Latin-based French is "phoque" (much to the amusement of many adolescent students of French).
A spoken word is just a series of sounds, but those sounds can shock, depending on language and context. When I told the above story to my French discussion group, mostly (but not all) native speakers of English, several of my listeners were startled when I repeated what the man had said. "Mais, je parle français", I protested ("But, I'm speaking French"). Not everyone found that a satisfactory explanation of my transgression.
You'll notice that I wrote above, "the French word for seal (the animal)". I added the parenthetical words because in English, the word "seal" has more than one meaning. As a verb, you can "seal" an envelope, and as a noun, a container can have a loose "seal", or a wax "seal" might be affixed to a letter. It's just a coincidence of English that these words are homonyms. Translated into French, they would all be completely different.
A French acquaintance once told me of a letter he received from an American who wrote to him in French. The letter spoke of a trip to see "une bonne allumette de football", which the reader puzzled over for a while. Eventually he realized that the sender was speaking of "a good football match" (word for word, "a good match of football"), but he had looked up "match" in a dictionary, and had come up with "allumette". In French, "une allumette" is a match, all right, but the kind you use to light a cigarette. A match in the sense of a sporting contest would be "une partie". Translation dictionaries are a bit dangerous.
A similar event was reported by one of the girls in our group during my first trip to France in the summer of 1961. She wanted to send a gift package home to the United States. She wanted it to arrive reasonably quickly, and not go by slow boat, so she went to her dictionary to look up the words she would need to allow her to specify a "rapid delivery" (perhaps you can imagine where this is heading). Thus it was that she said to the postal clerk behind a window inside Pau's main post office, "Je voudrais un accouchement rapide" ("I'd like a rapid delivery").
"Accouchement" means "delivery", all right - the delivery of a baby. She reported that the reaction of the clerk was a faint smile, but then, thinking quickly, he pulled himself together, and replied with a straight face, "guichet onze" ("window eleven"). So she crossed over to window eleven, and repeated her request to a second postal clerk, after which both of the clerks burst into laughter.
Perhaps the second clerk had a reputation as a ladies' man, and the first clerk was suggesting that he might indeed be her quickest path to a rapid accouchement. Or perhaps he just wanted his friend to be in on the joke. If she'd thought a bit about the word, the "couch" part might well have tipped her off that it wasn't the correct choice. It's an old French word for "bed" (the modern one is "lit"), and "se coucher" is still a verb meaning "to go to bed".