Thursday, September 3, 2009


False friends - words that sound like cognates but aren't, are the bane of the language learner. One that American students of Russian get hung up with all the time is "нормально" (normal'no), which sounds like the English "normal" and many American students use to mean "typical", but which actually means "pretty good" in Russian.

In Chinese, the word for "kiss" is "親嘴" (chin zui), but the slang version is "親親" (chin chin). There is even an export company named Chin Chin with two interlocked hearts as its logo.

In Japanese, the slang word for male member is "チンチン", also pronounced "chin chin".

This must have caused quite a bit of mirth and misunderstanding over the years, especially since the English name of the Chinese company is "King Lucky". o.O

Now, the proper French version of "Cheers" for a toast is "Salut", but informally, they also have an onomatopoeic toast to mimic the sound of full glasses clinking. "Chin Chin".

I'd advise French ladies on a business dinner with a bunch of traditional Japanese businessmen to stick to "Salut" when asked what you say when toasting in French. Unless those ladies like seeing their younger companions trying to suppress a snicker while the older ones turn beet red.


Fraxas said...

Similarly, 'embarasado' means pregnant in Spanish, not embarrassed.

John the Scientist said...

Fraxas, someone just reminded me of that recently. She was born in Argentina and grew up here, and made the mistake of saying "I'm very pregnant" instead of "I'm very embarrassed" at a family gathering back home. There was an awkward pause to the conversation... o.O

Nathan said...

Chevy Nova marketing in Mexico? The car name translates to "doesn't run".

I still have problems with the idea of buying a KIA because to me, it means "killed in action".

If you're in Israel, be certain your context is understood when you want eggs. The Hebrew word is "beitzim", which is slang for testicles.

John the Scientist said...

"Eggs" is slang for testicles in Russian, too, and given how Modern Hebrew evolved, I have a feeling that Eastern European Jews introduced that bit of slang into the language via Russian.

The Nova thing is an urban legend. There are plenty of words in Spanish derived from the latin "Nova", including Spanish for "new" : nuevo, and as Snopes says:

"Assuming that Spanish speakers would naturally see the word "nova" as equivalent to the phrase "no va" and think "Hey, this car doesn't go!" is akin to assuming that English speakers woud spurn a dinette set sold under the name Notable because nobody wants a dinette set that doesn't include a table."

CW said...

What I never understood was why the Nova was so popular in Puerto Rico...

Anonymous said...

..чин-чинарём: [proceeding} well
..чинарик: cigarette fag/butt
..чиниться: to be excessively formal (derived from чин, чиновник: a government official, a position on career ladder)

I guess all these should be excluded when entertaining Japanese partners at a business luncheon

John the Scientist said...

Tat, just the first one. There are plenty of words in Japanese that start with "chin", it's the double incidence that causes the snickers.

Anonymous said...

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