Embarrassing Moments

Mistakes Make Great Memories

eggs
Be careful how you ask about eggs in Spanish. because the word "huevos" can have another meaning. Photo by Victoria Rachitzky Hoch; licensed via Creative Commons.

Making mistakes comes with the territory of learning a foreign language. Most mistakes are benign, but when you make those mistakes in a different country or culture, some of them can be downright embarrassing.

A forum that used to be part of this site featured a discussion on embarrassing moments in learning the language. Here are a few of the responses.

Arbolito: While living in Madrid while getting my Master's degree, I went to the mercado, specifically to where they sold poultry.

I very politely asked for "two pechos." I had learned that "pechos" was the word for breast. Little did I know that there was a different word for chicken breasts, pechuga. So there I was, asking the man for 2 human breasts!

And I also used the word coger in Argentina, even though I have known forever that it is an obscenity there. But in other places, it is just a common way to say "to take." So I asked someone where I could "coger el autobús"!

Apodemus: On a Spanish course in Salamanca I met a Belgian girl. I asked her, in Spanish of course, whether she spoke Dutch or French. Her response was: "En la oficina, hablo holandés, pero en la cama hablo francés." Suddenly the whole room was looking at her, she went bright red and stuttered "En la casa, dije en la casa!!"

Rocer: In Chile, cabrito = young kid, but in Peru, cabrito = gay (or is it the other way around?)

A friend of mine from the U.S. was in Chile, and he learned the word cabrito.

People called him cabrito because he was young. He liked the word cabrito, so he called himself cabrito. Then he traveled to Peru, and some people asked him why he didn't get married with a Peruvian girl, he said "Es que yo soy muy cabrito" (he wanted to say "the thing is that I'm very young", and he ended up saying "the thing is that I'm very gay").

People just looked at him very weird, and laughed at him. Later on, he returned to Chile, where people laughed like crazy when he told them his story.

Hermanito: Lo siguiente no me pasó a mí sino a una amiga mía, quien apenas comenzaba a aprender español. Esta entro a una tiendita mexicana y le preguntó al dueño si tenía huevos, sin saber el sentido alternativo de la palabra.

(The word huevos, which means "eggs," is also a slang term for "testicles.")

El Tejano: In Mexico, ladies never order eggs — they always say "blancos."

Glenda: I have three stories.

The first is from a friend here in San Miguel, who after eating a delicious meal, wanted to compliment the cook. She said, "Compliments to the cocino." Cocino means a fat pig. She should have said compliments to the cocinero.

Then, there is this story, from our local newspaper. A moderately experienced horsewoman comes to Mexico and is taking riding lessons from a Mexican male teacher. He doesn't realize how experienced she is, so he wants her to keep the horse roped. She is frustrated but complies and keeps a rope on the horse throughout her lesson. They are talking in Spanish about the next day's lesson, making arrangements, and she finishes the conversation by saying, "Sí, está bien ... pero mañana, sin ropa.

"

And finally, from my own experience. A local waiter in a restaurant we like is also an artist. My husband and I saw his work displayed in the restaurant and decided to buy it. He was overjoyed, and in return offered to pay for the slice of cake we had ordered for dessert — a very sweet gesture. At the end of the meal, I said, "Gracias por la pastilla" (the pill) instead of "el pastel" (the cake).

I am sure that there have been many more embarrassing moments which I have caused ... but probably people here were so polite I never even knew.

El Tejano: Twenty odd years ago, I was in a shoe store in Mexico buying a new pair of shoes. My Spanish was a lot worse than it is now and I couldn't remember the word for "size." So I looked "size" up in my wimp dictionary (always a very risky practice) and the first entry was tamaño.

So I told the young lady that my tamaño was 9. She was very young and I was about 50, and I heard her mutter, barely audibly under her breath, rabo verde.

If you don't get it, I'll leave the details to someone else, otherwise you'll be calling me rabo verde too.

Here's another: I'm a retired painting contractor from Houston and we had a big commercial job down in the Rio Grande Valley, which is indistinguishable from Mexico itself. A gringo painter on our crew wanted to ask an attractive chica who worked at the Wal-Mart in Carrizo Springs to have lunch with him. We told him to say, "Señorita, es posible que quisieras comer conmigo? But he got confused and substituted "cojer for comer. The results were predictable!

Spanish Expert: One that comes to mind happened many years ago during a trip to Mexico when I needed to buy a razor. Not knowing the word for razor, I went in a small store and asked for algo para aceitar and got only strange looks. Sign language came in handy, and I'm sure that they then figured out the word I meant. I had used the verb for "to oil" (aceitar) instead of the verb for "to shave" (afeitar). I didn't realize what I had said until later that evening.

I traveled to Peru a few years ago with a then-teenage son, and he wanted to try using his minimal Spanish at an outdoor market. He decided to buy an alpaca blanket and asked how much it cost — quince soles was the answer, about $5 U.S. at the time. He thought that was a good deal, and promptly pulled cincuenta soles (about $18) from his wallet.

He would have paid it if I hadn't caught his mistake. In order to save himself the embarrassment of handing the vendor way too much money, he decided the price was one he couldn't pass up and promptly decided to buy two instead.

Donna B: We had cooked a turkey dinner for a Mexican exchange student, and my son, who was learning Spanish, told him we were having polvo for dinner instead of pavo. Our exchange student gave him a horrified look and refused to come down for dinner. We later realized he had told the exchange student we were having dust for dinner instead of turkey for dinner.

TML: The first time I went to Madrid I was asked to go to the supermercado and buy some chicken (pollo).

Well, I got a little tongue-tied and instead of asking the man for pollo, I asked for a specific part of his anatomy. Talk about an embarrassing moment! He finally figured out what I was asking for and I went home with some real chicken parts! The family I was staying with almost wet their pants laughing.

I have since been back to Madrid 8 times and have learned a very important lesson ... We are the ones who put the burden on ourselves. Every person I met really wanted me to succeed, and they were extremely helpful. They didn't try to make me feel stupid — but were more touched by my desire to communicate with them — even in lieu of my grammatical errors.

Lessons learned: If you are afraid to make mistakes, you will not learn. Years down the road you will have some funny and often wonderful memories of people you met and how you each helped one another out.

Lily Su: I was looking up the word dulce in my excellent dictionary (which lists lots of ways to use words and phrases) wanting to see if it was used to say things like, "oh thank you, that was sweet of you", etc., and not just that you preferred sweet desserts, for example.

I was reading along and ran across the word "boniato" (sweet potato). I must not have been reading very carefully because I somehow got the idea that you could call someone a boniato as a term of endearment (maybe like we call someone sweetie). So I went around saying, "hola, mi boniato" to many of my Spanish friends, only one of which finally corrected me.

It still cracks us all up when we remember that!

Also heard about an American priest who commented at the Spanish mass that he loved los calzones bonitos (calzones is underpants) when he meant to say las canciones bonitas (the beautiful songs)!

Patty: I was shopping for groceries in Los Angeles with a Spanish-speaking friend, and in attempt to help her choose her orange juice I asked her (in Spanish) if she wanted the one with pulp or without. It turned out to be one of those occasions that guessing at the word by adding an 'o' at the end didn't work. "Pulpo" means octopus. Fortunately, I was close enough; the word is "pulpa," so she was able to guess what I meant.

AuPhinger: The phrase "y pico" was commonly used to mean "and a little," or a little bit, as in "ochenta pesos y pico" for "a little over eighty pesos." One of the fellows in my father's office transferred to, if I remember correctly, Chile.

He used the phrase — for a short while! Until one of the guys in the office pulled him aside and informed him that there, "y pico" meant "a little bit" of only one thing!

Liza Joy: Once in a university night class I was teaching, a recently divorced middle-aged student decided to use the Spanish she learned in my class on a trip to Mexico. She wanted to get away from the tourist route and so went to a restaurant where no one appeared to speak English. She managed to order a delicious meal, but when it came time to ask for the bill, all she could think of to say was "how much," which she translated literally as "como mucho" which means "I eat a lot," instead of the correct "cuánto."

This rather plump lady told me that she kept pointing at her dish and saying "como mucho" to the waiter, who looked embarrassed and kept saying, "No, señora, usted no come mucho."

Finally, she took out her credit card, and he suddenly understood.

She didn't understand what the problem was until she got back to class after Easter break.

Moral: Learn your question words!

Russell: This didn't actually happen to me, but a colleague of mine told me this story that happened to her. She was working in South America with the Peace Corps. She was cleaning up some area among a group of a mixture of Peace Corps folks and natives. At some point, she looked around and found that everyone had left except one local man. Being friendly, she thought she'd ask his name. She intended to say, "¿Cómo te llamas?" but it came at "comoteyamo," which meant he heard, "Cómo te amo" (How I love you!).

Not surprisingly, the man got a surprised look on his face and did the only logical thing. He ran away.

Sierra Jenkins: I worked at an international center for Girl Scouts in Cuernavaca, Mexico, that hosted girls from around the world for two-week sessions. One of my co-workers was from England and didn't speak a lick of Spanish and was terribly worried about offending someone, but I finally talked her into trying out a bit. We went over to chat with a few girls from Argentina and my friend said, "I'd like to ask her how old she is." I told her to say, "¿Cuántos años tienes?" and she turned to the girl and said, "¿Cuántos anos tienes?" The girl busted a gut and replied, "Solo uno, ¡pero funciona muy bien!

"

Needless to say, I never got my friend to speak Spanish again.

Bamulum: When my wife (nicaragúense) and I (Tennesseean) married, we kept an English-Spanish dictionary between us at all times. It was only a short amount of time that I had learned just enough Spanish to get myself into trouble. I had been sick for a few days but had gotten a lot better. When asked by my mother-in-law how I was feeling, I responded by saying "mucho mujeres" instead of "mucho mejor," and of course received quite a stern look from my suegra!

Note: Most of the comments above have been edited for brevity, context and, in some cases, content, spelling or grammar. You can find the original discussion here.