You have to watch what you say. I mean in the
sense of using colloquialisms, not in the sense of being insulting,
although that happens, too. For instance, if youíve ever heard the
Dutch language spoken, it may sound to you a lot like German. It
does to me. Fortunately, I read in a book that the Dutch find that
comparison offensive. I met an older Dutch woman and said I had
heard that the Dutch found the comparison offensive and she was
offended that I would even mention such a thing.
When I was in high school, I learned not to use
idiomatic expressions with people who arenít intimately familiar
with English. A kid from Argentina moved in across the street from
us to live with his sister. Once, when discussing why I never saw
him at the bus stop, he said his sister drove him to school leaving
at 8:10 a.m. when we had to be there by 8:15 a.m. "Isnít that
cutting the cheese pretty thin?" said I. Cheese? He looked at me
like I was nuts. I learned my lesson.
But here itís different. I avoid the use of
idiomatic expressions, but what passes for ordinary conversation
can sound odd, too. We are looking to buy a house and our real
estate person is a Dutch man named Timo. Timo called on the phone
one day and identified himself. "Hey, Timo, howya doiní." He
hesitated just a second and I realized he wondered how is he doing
Perhaps the one that gave me the biggest laugh
was one night in a restaurant. The Dutch eat dinner late but we eat
dinner early so we were the first ones in the restaurant. The maitre
dí took our coats and put them on the empty coat rack. By the time
we left two hours later (it takes a long time to eat dinner here Ė
they arenít too interested in turning over tables), the place was
full. I looked for the coats but couldnít find them. The maitre dí
saw me looking and promptly went into the pile and retrieved them.
How did he do that? He said that he didnít put the coats on the rack
at random. Each table is assigned certain hanger numbers and because
he knew which was our table, he knew which were our coats. "Way to
go!" Way to go where? He knew the words but didnít understand the
American context of approval.
The use of individual words is different
sometimes. For instance, when the Dutch speak English they use
"possible" much more frequently than Americans do. Say you want to
use a credit card to pay for something. In the U.S. itís
inconceivable that someone doesnít take one, but letís pretend. The
proprietor of the store would say something like, "Iím sorry but we
donít accept credit cards." Here they say, "Iím sorry but itís not
possible to use a credit card." Another example might be if you
inquire as to whether or not you could pick something up on Sunday.
The response would be not that the store is closed, but rather that
itís not possible to pick it up then. An American clearly
understands what is meant, but the words are used in a different
My favorite, though, is "orange." Quick, what do
you think of when you think of "orange?" A fruit? A color? Syracuse?
If you picked the third one, you are either related to me or you
know my son Bruce, or both. In English, orange is both a fruit and a
color. Therefore an orange is orange. So is a tangerine, but that
doesnít matter. The Dutch word for the color is oranje. Pretty easy.
However, the fruit has a different word which I still have a hard
time with. When we first got here and went shopping, we were looking
for orange juice. Not juice that is the color orange (although it
is, but that could have come from a tangerine, too), but rather
juice made from the fruit orange. We learned quickly that the word
for juice is sap. Thatís also easy. We saw something called appelsap
with a picture of an apple and, using our Sherlock Holmes powers of
deduction, quickly realized we were looking at apple juice. Then, on
another carton, we saw what appeared to be a picture of an orange
and the word that went with it was sinaasappel. The Dutch word for
orange the fruit is sinaasappel. I donít know if this is a different
strain of apple, or what. I just know that it has made me wonder
about some things.
For example, on New Yearís Day in Miami (or the
day after this year), thereís a football game called The Orange
Bowl. If played in Amsterdam, it would be the Sinaasappel Bowl. The
FedEx Sinaasappel Bowl. That sounds wonderful.
In a business meeting when someone makes a point
that another person objects to because the points of reference being
discussed are unrelated, is he accused of comparing appels and
sinaasappels? It would almost seem to make sense to do that. Notice
that in English we donít compare grapes and grapefruit although,
linguistically speaking that might also make sense. If one compared
appels and oranjes, that would be like comparing watermelons and
The Syracuse sports teams are known as the
Orangemen. Would they become the Sinaasappelmen? This is not an easy
call to make. The orange in Orangemen means the color because thatís
the Syracuse color; everything is orange. However, the little mascot
that appears everywhere is a dressed figure of an orange, the fruit.
I am losing little bits of sleep over this and
nobody has an answer. I need something else to worry about. Maybe I
should get a job.