Day 12: Lost in Translation

Day twelve, er, something that rhymes with twelve.

It’s been a while since we made up our combidioms (remember them?) so I reckon it’s time for some more linguistic shenanigry because we all love words, right? 

Words, words, words. Over a million distinct words in the English language, and an estimated 80% of those were nicked from the 7,000+ other languages in the world (classic English behaviour…).

But what happens when those words collide?

For example: 

The word ‘bestie’ in English is slang for best friend

But in Czech, ‘bestie’ means beast, brute or monster

There’s a story in there… A monstrous best friend? A beast who becomes a best friend? 

Ludo friend?

Here’s some more:

Gift in English means a present. But in German, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian it means poison. Not only that, but it also means married in Danish, Swedish, Norwegian. Lots to unpack there…

Banal means boring in English, but holy in Filipino

Gato in Spanish means cat but gâteux (pronounced more or less the same) in French means cake (please do not bake your kitty)

Taco means octopus in Japanese and, well, taco, everywhere else.

Gif of a blue cartoon octopus wearing sunglasses bouncing a taco on one of its tentacles

Air is what English-speakers breathe but in Malay ‘air’ means water. Elemental, baby.

Dog in Hebrew actually means fish.

Mama (мама) in Russian (and many other languages!) means mother but Mama (მამა)’ in Georgian means father.

And while we’re talking family, brat means brother in Russian (брат), Polish, Ukrainian, Croatian, and Serbian, but in English, well, it can still mean an annoying sibling bwaha.

Si means no in Swahili but yes in Spanish, and just to confuse things even more, ‘no’ means yes in Czech (technically it’s the shortened form of ‘ano’ but apparently very common).

Gif of Phoebe from Friends nodding while saying 'no'

Trombone means paperclip in French.

Confident in English means feeling self-assured but in Polish, ‘konfident’ means a snitch or informer.

And because it’s inevitable that we lower the tone…

Kiss is the Swedish word for pee.

The English word fart means pet in French and speed in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.

The English name Gary (meaning spear) unfortunately sounds like the word diarrhoea in Japanese. Sorry Gaz.

And don’t get us started on the various words that relate to genitalia in different languages. No seriously, we’ll be here all day.

Right. Enough linguistic silliness! Here’s today’s exercise: 

Pick a dual-meaning word from the list above, or find your own via the power of bilingualism and/or internet searching. 

Take the two meanings and turn them into a story. Perhaps a straight-up linguistic misunderstanding. Or a more abstract interpretation of the two words. It’s up to you! We just wanna see what your brain comes up with when we throw language at it. 

Cos isn’t that what writing’s all about? 

Right, get to it. 20 minutes on the clock. Grab your words and GO!

Then come tell us all about it in the forum… 

Useful Stuff & Things:


If you are shocked and appalled at the cavalier WHQ approach to language you might wanna read our manifesto on the subject… 

Need an extra nudge to get your story going? Try this exercise from Seven Ideas in Seven Days and add a question to your wordy prompt: Fill Your Brain, Empty Your Brain

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