Errors are the building blocks of linguistic success, the scholars tell us reassuringly. They can also be painful, embarrassing and — at least afterward — funny.
On the phone to a maintenance company recently about a collapsed curtain rail in our apartment, I told the person on the other end 木の中にネギを入れた (Ki no naka ni negi o ireta, I put an onion into the wood). What I meant to say instead of ネギ (onion), of course, was ネジ (neji, screw). My wife couldn’t stop laughing when she heard. I pasted the conversation online, prompting some journalist friends to dredge up their own bloopers from years of Japanese learning. Here are some of the best (or worst).
John Harris recalls trying to tell someone in a bar that he was a 編集者 (henshūsha, editor) but instead saying 変態者 (hentaisha, which could be interpreted as “pervert person” but isn’t an actual word). Guardian correspondent Justin McCurry still mixes up きんぴら (kinpira, sauteed vegetables）and チンピラ (chinpira, thug) after a few drinks. Barbara Bayer, a former Japan Times editor, says she was so excited to discover red bean paste (アンコ) in a shop that she shouted out ウンコ大好き (Unko daisuki, I love poo).
Writer John Ashburne says he once tried to ask a Gunma schoolboy if he knew the location of a restaurant called 金釜 (Kinkama), but “Alas I asked him if he knew the location of his 金玉 (kintama, testicles). He cycled off pretty sharpish.”
Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia correspondent for The Times newspaper, recalls the time he called for an ambulance for his elderly father. “I conveyed the information (to paramedics) that he had a sharp pain in his ニンニク (ninniku, garlic) rather than his 筋肉 (kinniku, muscle). Learning this, they switched on the siren and rushed him to the hospital.”
Jonathan Watts, a former Guardian correspondent, says in his early days in Japan, he wanted to suggest that a sick girlfriend take a rest, “休んで下さい” (Yasunde kudasai). “Instead, by mistake, I callously told her to ‘痩せて下さい'” — Yasete kudasai, lose some weight.
Rachel Ferguson, formerly of NHK, says that during her last pregnancy she complained to her doctor about a 血管 (kekkan, vein) in the back of her leg. “I bent over and announced that my ケツ (ketsu) had swollen and encouraged her to run a finger over it. ケツ means butt.”
Confusing 人参 (ninjin, carrot) and 人間 (ningen, human) is a recurring headache for Japanese learners. During a heated debate with a friend I once shouted, “I am a carrot!” Dennis Normile, a journalist with Science magazine, says he once told someone what he liked most about traveling was “meeting carrots.”
“Probably my best blooper was crossing 子ども (kodomo, children) and 果物 (kudamono, fruit) and telling someone my typical breakfast was yogurt on chopped children,” Normile says.
Speaking of kids, a true classic when it comes to erroneous Japanese is calling someone’s baby 怖い (kowai, scary) instead of 可愛い (kawaii, cute), though that one’s so common, parents must be used to it by now.
As for myself, my mistakes are so ghastly that I find the only way to expunge the memory is to revisit the trauma. Here are my top three in order of level of embarrassment:
3) At college in the 1990s a Japanese friend said I looked tired, so I tried to explain that a dog barking outside my apartment had kept me awake the previous night: 昨日の夜、犬に犯された (Kinō no yoru, inu ni okasareta) instead of 昨日の夜犬に起こされた (Kinō no yoru, inu ni okosareta), which meant that I was raped (okasareta) by a dog (inu) the night before (Kinō no yoru) rather than just woken up (okosareta) by one.
2) I once went into a pharmacy and instead of asking for 石鹸 (sekken, soap) I said 結婚下さい (kekkon kudasai, marriage please). The elderly male shopkeeper didn’t bat an eyelid, though, and simply replied, ないです (Nai desu, There’s none).
1) I was on the radio in 2001 interviewing an amateur historian who said she had once been a teacher but quit to become a housewife. I asked her: いつに娼婦になりましたか? (When did you become a prostitute?), using the word 娼婦 (shōfu, sex worker) instead of 主婦 (shufu, housewife). The show was recorded live.
Of course, the mistakes go both ways. My Japanese ex-wife once asked a room full of people in Liverpool about the “erection” (勃起, bokki) British Prime Minister Tony Blair was facing, when what she meant to say was “election” (選挙, senkyo). I guess as bad as things may get for us perpetual learners of Japanese, we can take solace in the fact that we’ll never have to deal with that dreaded challenge of mixing up the letters “l” and “r.”