For a while, my most embarrassing Spanish-language experience was the solid week in which I went around chatting with people about “my owner” when I meant “my landlord.”
I had been looking for a new place to live in Buenos Aires. My current landlord was a quirky guy who I got along well with, so in everyday conversation (usually with strangers whose apartments I was looking to rent a room in), I’d drop a reference to something “my owner” had said or done. When I finally realized my mistake, I cringed at the number of people probably wondering just what sort of relationship I was in, anyway.
A few months after learning that lesson, I worked as an admin at a Spanish school for foreigners. Before each day’s classes would start, one of the teachers and I would stand in the hallway and chat. Our conversations were mostly about cats and subway strikes and what we planned to do over the weekend, but one day we got into a debate about lechón, which is a sort of roasted suckling pig. A fan of the dish, he described how it was tender enough that one could actually slice through the bones and eat them.
“No,” I said. “I would never eat bones.”
“Why not? They’re small and soft, it doesn’t seem like you’re eating bones at all.”
It became sort of a running joke after that – from time to time he’d ask if I’d tried it yet, and I’d always say hell no.
I should add at this point that I shared an office with a very serious coworker. Sometimes I’d try and make him laugh, and it never worked – he’d just shake his head and type faster or straighten some papers on his desk. I always got the distinct impression that he thought I was a little crazy or a little obnoxious, or possibly a bit of both.
I should also add that the suckling pig dish is “el lechón,” and that the gender assigned to any given Spanish noun is usually important.
“Te gusta la lechón?” I asked casually.
My coworker seemed taken aback. He looked up at me, a surprised and disgusted look on his face.
“I know. Gross, right?”
“Do you have any idea what that means?”
“What? I don’t like it. Do you? You know, the little roasted pig where you can eat the bones.”
At that point he started laughing, explaining that EL lechón refers to the suckling pig, and LA lechón is a slang word for….semen.
“That’s not what I meant,” I gasped, as he laughed harder.
My coworker waved to the doorman, who stood down the hall. “Come over here! Listen to this!”
“Ugh!” said our doorman, determined to give me a hard time. “Some things we just don’t want to hear about!”
“No! Shut up! I didn’t mean it!” I protested, as they called to one of the teachers walking out of a classroom.
“Hey, guess what Callie just said!”
If nothing else, it taught me to care about the genders of words in foreign languages!
What’s your most embarrassing foreign-language story?