Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cross Cultural Communication

My grandfather on my dad's side (Pop-pop) was a Pennsylvania Dutchman. He is the main source of most of the dutchisms I use myself. As I've mentioned in earlier posts my parents were very particular about my brother and me NOT using local slang so we would not be regarded as poorly educated. Pop-pop did not complete high school since it was the days of the Great Depression and he needed to find work to help the family's economic situation instead. He was known for using a lot of dutchified speech and I have many memories of my grandmother reprimanding him for using poor grammar in front of my brother and me. Although he never graduated he was a lifelong voracious reader and a thinking man. As a child I was always amused by the colloquialisms he used and looking back now I would characterize it more as his form of poetic license in self-expression rather than an example of bad English and poor usage. He was able to speak correctly when he felt the need but chose the more colorful local way to express things. He was also a great fan of wordplay.

On lovely, sunny days he'd shove his hands in his pockets, scan his surroundings and muse, "It's a great day for the race." The expected inquiry was, "What race?" to which he'd respond in mock surprise at the obtuseness of the asker, ''Why the human race, of course!"

If he or someone else had a sudden understanding of something which previously confounded them he'd declare, "'I see,' said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw!"

If I misbehaved he'd threaten to "cloud up and rain all over me."

I was often told to clear my plate at supper so we were sure to have clear weather the next day.

If I complained of an injury or not feeling well he'd ask me, "Do we need to take you out in the field and shoot you like a horse?"

The one phrase that amused me most though was a long string of what sounded like gibberish to my ears as a child. It was used when I had done some serious misbehaving. It was ALWAYS followed by my grandmother scolding, "Raymond! Such language in front of the children!" I often asked what it meant since it never failed to get a rise out of my grandmother. Pop-pop always just looked at me sternly and said I didn't need to know what it meant but I'd darn sure better not ever say it around an Italian.

The curiosity killed me. Since he wouldn't tell me what this long phrase meant I was determined to learn to say it and use it on him. I even went so far as to provoke him while I had a tape recorder going so I could play it back repeatedly until I could say it just like he did. When I was about 11 the day came when Pop-pop did some mildly annoying thing and I shook my head in mock anger, waved my hands threateningly, and rattled off the forbidden phrase as well as he did. His eyes went wide and my grandmother had a conniption, the likes of which I had never seen before. "Raymond! Now look what you've done! I told you not to speak like that around the children!!" Pop-pop, momentarily dumbstruck, regained the power of speech and said softly with some measure of desperation, "Girl, you just never say that around an Eye-talian. It's very nasty sailor talk. I learned it in WW2 from my shipmate, Moroni. It's not the kind of talk a young lady uses." I told him I'd heed him but over the years we still traded the long phrase back and forth only now it was a joke more than anything else.

Flash forward to my days in college when I spent most of my free time with the foreign exchange students. There were quite a lot of students from India and Pakistan, several from Taiwan, China, and Iran, a number from Argentina. Occasionally there were various Europeans. I became friends with an Iranian guy named Mohammed, Mo for short. His family had come to the USA during the Islamic revolution. Then one semester Pietro arrived...from Italy. He became fast friends with Mo and so I got to know him reasonably well.

One day the three of us went to a local hole in the wall and conversation flowed from one topic to another. We finally landed on various slang expressions in our respective languages. A lifetime of curiosity got the better of me and I asked if Pietro would translate something for me. I forewarned him that I was told it was fairly ugly and I probably was not going to pronounce everything correctly since I learned it from my German grandfather when he was reprimanding me with it. Pietro said that was fine and I should just tell him what the phrase was so he could translate. I rattled off the dozens of syllables and sat anxiously waiting to finally learn the meaning. Pietro's eyes bugged out of his head and his jaw dropped into his plate. I think he may have lost a shade of color or two before he asked in complete disgust what kind of vile man would speak like that in front of a child and a girl no less. He said a lot of it was garbled beyond comprehension but the ending was unmistakably vulgar. Mo's interested was really sparked now because he greatly enjoyed controversy. I was stifling giggles and assured Pietro my grandfather was a kind and decent man.

Pietro would have no part of it. I assured him I would not be upset if he told me what it meant. Mo egged him on hoping to see some real sparks. Pietro shook his head and resolutely refused, "No, I will not repeat such filth in front of a woman." Finally Mo, who had no such chivalrous compunctions, suggested Pietro whisper the meaning in his ear and Mo would then tell me. I thought that was fair enough and finally Pietro was swayed after I once again promised not to hold him personally responsible for any offense. He whispered in Mo's ear as I leaned forward trying to overhear. Mo sputtered and asked Pietro to repeat to make sure he'd heard correctly. He had and his reaction was somewhere between horror at true understanding and delight at being able to be the conveyor of such potential atrocity. Mo did, however, have the sense to make me promise not to slap him when he gave the translation.

I gave my word and sat waiting for the mystery of Pop-pop's oft used and mangled Italian phrase to be revealed at long last. Pietro refused to meet my eyes as Mo blurted out with great pride and a big grin that the end of the phrase meant, "my dick up your ass!" I let out a guffaw and allowed that I now knew why my grandmother had fits every time the phrase was uttered. Pietro was relieved but shocked that I wouldn't be slapping either him or Mo. Mo just sat there basking in the afterglow.


Jim said...

Lol. I'll bet he also enjoyed a healthy dish of pork and saurkraut, too.


airplanejayne said...

no wonder your grandma freaked out!

I grew up hearing the "picked up a hammer" one too -- but my mom was also fond of, "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride."

Keyser Soze said...

I'm completely ferriked and feraikled

furiousBall said...

I absolutely love "It's a great day for the race."

I need to say that and think that more often and hopefully it will wear off on my kids.

Logophile said...

Mo sounds like a hoot.
Life is so unfair, your grampa was teaching you filthy Italian slang while I was getting in trouble for saying shut up!

lime said...

jim, he did indeed :P

apj, i believe he used that phrase as well ;)

keyser, i am weeping for joy at your usage,. i'm so proud

furiousball, i can't help but think of that phrase on days when the weather is perfect.

logo, not to fear, i got in trouble for saying 'shut-up' too.

Maddy said...

First class dearie!

Gledwood said...

wat voor een lekker blogposting!

deze hier is mijn reactie

op mijn Englander-Dutch


Cooper said...

Do you know what's hot in the publishing world right now? Memoirish novels. Why don't you write one? You have the gift for it...

barman said...

You do so well with your stories. You built that up so well there is not way I would walk away before hearing it all and wanting more.

You know it is funny. Some people (nationalities) find something like that crude but are able to deal with it. Others just can not make themselves deal with iot at all. What a difference in us all.

I heard about half your sayings and I like them especially about the race. Clever.

david mcmahon said...

I love the phrase ``it's a great day for the race'' - I'd never heard that before.

But ``I see said the blind man'' was one of my favourites as a kid.

Breazy said...

This post makes me miss my maternal grandfather. He was born and raised in the mountains of Haywood, NC and I use to love some of his sayings.

Pa use to use the horse shooting thing on us to.

Now I am curious as to what the rest of the statement meant that your grandfather said, I mean if the ending was like that I wanna know what was said before that to work up to that finale! LOL!

Have a good day!

Beach Bum said...

Your Pop-pop sounds a lot like my grandfather. He was always letting certain things slip that would freak my grandmother out.

His favorite phrase that I never could figure out until much later was when he, my uncles, my dad, and any other adult male around all said they needed to "Go see about a dog" leaving the kids with the women. They would be away for hours and never bring back the expected puppy. I learned that was the code phrase for them to ride off and drink beer. My brothers and I use it now to slip away from the kids and wives during the holidays we are together.

G-Man said...

Holy Shit!!!
Is this Blog R-Rated??
I love old sayings...
You spin a damn fine yarn Michelle...

M said...

Ah..that explains it. Mischievousness is in your genes.

Jeni said...

I've never heard the one about "Great day for the race - human race" but I do love it! Don't 'cha think it's kind of akin to saying "It's a beautiful day in Pennsylvania!?" The "blind man" one - my grandma always finished it with "When he couldn't see at all." Took a while for my kids to figure that one out.
Love reading about the PA Dutch customs and expressions though - very interesting and quite educational too.

Suldog said...

That is a GREAT story, Lime!

It reminds me of my Dad.

We were in Italy. I think it was around 1972, which would have made me 15. Anyway, The World Cup was going on and my Dad and I were watching it, in our hotel lobby, with many Italians.

Now, My Dad used to hang out in The North End of Boston, the Italian section. He did so because he worked for the airlines and many of his fellow employees lived there. Anyway, he became facile with a phrase similar to the one your grandfather used. He used it - as he supposed his friend did - to express dismay.

Back to Italy. We're sitting there watching the game and a member of the Italian team takes a kick at the ball and misses the net by a wide margin. My father, wishing to express solidarity with his new companions, utters the phrase, loudly.

The room went completely and utterly quiet. Eyes bugged out all around. My Dad looked back and forth, from face to face to face, and found nary a single kind one. Finally, one man had the courage (and manners) to say, "Eh, Mr. Sullivan, that's-a not sometin' you say in the public. That's a very, very bad saying."

My Dad was a good one for jollying along anyone he may have inadvertently offended, so he worked his way back into their good graces before long, but it was pretty hairy there for awhile.

(As I understood it, the phrase was roughly translated as "Your mother is a whore", but it may have contained other less-nice shadings.)

San said...

Talk about clouding up. That's puttin' it where the sun don't shine!

Congratulations on being honored over at David's place.