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Words Behaving Badly

21 February 2012

A few years ago the women’s restroom at the Ikea in Åsane had a poster over the sinks that read:

“SHIT! Glemt bleier?” (“Shit! Forgot diapers?”) It was meant as a play on the word “skit”, which is pronounced the same but means “dirt” and is used to refer to dirty diapers. The sign then directed in-trouble moms to the Ikea restaurant where free emergency diapers were available.

I had to laugh at the cleverness of it, but the sign left me wondering if an Ikea in the U.S. could get away with something like that. Of course it seems much less “bad” if the “bad” words are in another language. For example, I can say Merde! Mierda! Scheiße! and a whole host of other foreign profanities without even feeling the need to cover my mouth.

On the first day of a university-level writing course I was co-teaching, my colleague asked the students around the table to please introduce themselves.

The first student responded in English: “I’m too f–ked up to answer.”

Laughter erupted around the table. I supposed I blushed. But as the day progressed it turned out he was a good student, slightly shy even. Certainly not a rebel.

Far from telling us “I’ve just done a lot of drugs,” I assume he meant to say something along the lines of, “I’m too tired to answer.”

It occurred to me that while many Norwegians speak English extremely well, the subtleties of appropriateness are more difficult to learn in a foreign language when not living in that particular culture. Who you are speaking with and where matters a great deal.

Take the larger than life poster I saw hanging in the window of Greighallen – the main concert hall in Bergen named after the composer Edward Grieg. Greighallen is the main venue for operas and classical music performances, but also hosts some smaller bands and lesser-known performers. The poster advertised, in 5000-point type, the upcoming appearance of a band called “BJØRN HELLF—K”.

I considered calling Greighallen to tell them the complete inappropriateness of such a poster, glaring out at passersby in central Bergen, but decided against it. Who was I, after all? The language police?

So I puzzled over whether Norwegians simply did not know the weight of these words, or did not care. In a country that sells nuddie mags at child’s-eye level at the grocery store check-out, it’s a bit hard to tell what is offensive.

Then again, I wondered if American films might be to blame. It certainly would appear that we all go around saying, “F—k!” to everyone, everywhere, all the time. The film Casino uses the “F” word 398 times, or once every 2.37 minutes. In films like Scarface and Hoffa you’ll hear the word almost once every minute. Compounded with this is the fact on TV and in films profane words are always translated into less offensive words in the subtitles. (The “F” word is usually translated as “Faen,” which in Norwegian carries the shock value of a word like “hell.”) Still, I’m not sure films and subtitles can be blamed for everything.

About two years ago a new muffin and coffee shop opened in Bergen called “Eat My Muffin.” When I first spotted it I couldn’t even stand there looking at the swirly logo without choking. Someone should tell them! I thought. But they had clearly already spent a good deal of money painting the logo across the glass front, and on napkins, cups and paper take-away bags. What could be said? And maybe they already knew? “Eat My Muffin” has since become so popular that they’ve recently opened a second location.

Local designer Charles Ravndal wrote on his blog: “I think Eat My Muffin is a really catchy name for such an establishment though it sounded somewhat *whispering* dirty too.”

No! I groan. No! No! No! No! No! The name of the shop doesn’t sound “*whispering* dirty,” it sounds gross, completely off-putting in fact. Double entendres are fine for porn shops, but coffee shops full of moms with strollers?

I am hereby begging ESL teachers around the world to please teach some cultural context with language.

And then –

Yesterday my son came home from school, threw his English book down on the table and informed me:

“This book is teaching us to say mean things in English.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“One guy says to another guy, ‘I’m gonna rip your guts out!’ and then the other guy says, ‘Shut up!’”

“Well,” sighed my husband. “You can’t learn the language without learning the culture.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 February 2012 11:54

    Ohhh too funny, Jena. I love the “Eat My Muffin” story. You’re right–it’s not dirty–it is so gross!!!

  2. 21 February 2012 15:23

    There certainly is a cultural context to everything. Gestures carry different meanings, as well. Is American culture much different than other English speaking countries? We are prudish in many ways when sex or nudity is involved, but consider graphic violence quite acceptable. I hope Eat My Muffin is still there next time I get to Bergen!

    • 22 February 2012 07:03

      My husband and I puzzle all the time about the distaste for nudity and love for guns and violence in American films. I think the Brits are much, much less prudish than the Americans, and I think the “f” word has lost much of its taboo there as well.

  3. Goodness and Grit permalink
    22 February 2012 00:06

    Hahaha ‘Eat My Muffin’, I think beer just squirted out my nose! It’s Fat Tuesday you know!
    I once saw a sign in a glass display case (Parken Kafe Lillehammer) that said ‘Cockies’. For some reason I felt compelled to correct them and they removed the sign. But when I returned to the counter for a refill, the uncorrected sign had found it’s way back to the platter of cookies!?! They don’t care, and frankly neither do I anymore. Strange how that happens.

    But, Eliane (8 yrs) is Not allowed say shit (yet). We had this discussion this morning!

    Great post!!!

    • Goodness and Grit permalink
      22 February 2012 00:49

      Kaffe 🙂

    • 22 February 2012 07:05

      OMG! I can’t believe they put it back. That’s too funny. I think people here don’t care because there isn’t a sense of taboo around the word in English. I am guessing they would have a harder time doing something like that in Norwegian, but who knows.

      We keep trying to teach my son that we don’t say “shit” in English, but we’re going nowhere with it. All the kids say it. (He’s 10). Oh well, there are plenty of worse things he could do!

  4. Bente permalink
    23 February 2012 18:58

    For meg så virker dette litt hysterisk, men det bunner jo nok i det du også sier – at vi snakker engelsk med innenfor en annen kontekst enn f.eks amerikanere. Nå synes jeg kanskje at den kaféen du nevner var litt i overkant av hva jeg selv synes er ok….så den ser jeg absolutt.

    Engelsk er jo samtidig mer et verdensspråk enn noe annet, hvorfor må noen ha monopol på meningsinnholdet?

    Den sensuren en ser når det kommer til enkelte land tror jeg på mange måter kan føre til et mer lukket samfunn hvor folk tar ut sine mindre velpolerte sider i skjul, ikke minst ungdom – i frykt for hva foreldre og samfunn vil si eller tro. Hvorfor være så redd for alt? Men dette var litt på siden av innlegget ditt… 🙂

    Jeg mener absolutt at en skal vise respekt for den en snakker med, eller den kulturen en oppholder seg i – tilpasse seg og være aktsom. Samtidig ser jeg ikke at det nødvendigvis behøver å være så negativt at en i Norge har en litt annen tilnærming til hva vi synes er ok eller ei.

  5. 28 February 2012 14:45

    Hei Bente – Takk som alltid for dine tanker! Jeg setter pris på feedback fra nordmenn/kvinner.

    Dette post var jo ment å være litt hysterisk — I was poking fun both at myself and at Norwegian English.

    Jeg er enig 100% at engelsk er en verdensspråk — jeg har skrevet 2 posts om dette som heter “Englishes”. Men samtidig må vi ha litt enighet om hva ordene betyr, ellers betyr de ingenting.

    Jeg også tror at et godt spørsmål er: Hvorfor være så redd? Men jeg ser at nordmann bruker engelsk med mer frihet en norsk. Tenk deg, for eksempel, en band eller en kaffebar som blir kalt “Knuller Kafe” eller “FaenElskere” på norsk. Det går ikke an. Men det er helt “ok” å gjøre det på engelsk. Og på den ene siden jeg forstår dette. Jeg skrev at jeg og vil si ting på andre språk at jeg vill ikke si på engelsk. Men samtidig vil jeg ikke reise til frankrike og bruker banneord. Det er derfor at jeg av og til følger at nordmann bor ha litt mer respekt for andre kulturer og for hva er stygg å si i andre kulturer.

    But what I have just written are afterthoughts! In the post I really was trying to laugh at myself as well as Norwegians — especially in the last sentence when I write that my husband pointed to our violence-loving American culture that is, at the same time, prudish (the “F” word makes a film “R” rated, but violence doesn’t.)

    Takk for samtalen!

    • Bente permalink
      2 March 2012 18:08

      Ja, jeg er egentlig veldig enig med deg i alt det du sier her:) Det viktigste er at vi respekterer hverandre – og som du sier, har respekt for hva språket symboliserer for den vi snakker med:)

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