BOSTON — My German exchange student, Jana, came home from school one day with a mischievous smile on her lips. "I learned a new phrase today!" she announced.
I waited, curious to hear what it was. Jana had come to us already proficient in English, but after living here for several months and attending our local high school, she was speaking more and more like an American. Teenage slang had wormed its way into her vocabulary.
I braced myself. "What is the new phrase?" I asked.
"Mow the lawn!" she exclaimed. "Mow! It's so funny! Mow, mow, mow. It sounds like 'meow'! Or 'moo'!"
"Mow the lawn" never gave me pause before, but I mouthed the words, mimicking Jana. "Mow, mow, mow the lawn!" Sure enough, it sounded silly.
Our yearlong adventure with language began last fall. Soon after Jana arrived, she pointed excitedly at a get-well card while we were shopping. "Look! It has a German word on the front!"
I couldn't help smiling. "Didn't you know that we say Gesundheit, too?" I asked. No, she hadn't.
Jana and I shared a mutual interest in words and writing. One day while she was doing her homework, she asked me what the English word was for something unexpected that happened in nature, something with disastrous results. A calamity? I offered. A natural phenomenon? No, those didn't sound right.
"In German we call it Katastrophe."
"We use the same word," I admitted, embarrassed that I hadn't thought of it myself, "except we spell it with a 'c.' "
German and English share a number of common words, such as auto, kindergarten, and butter, but other words are ziemlich weit voneinanderentfernt, a good distance apart. For instance, Jana was delighted to learn the words "tadpole" and "polliwog." "What do you call baby frogs in Germany?" I asked.
Jana had to think a minute. And, having spoken so little German for months, even she stumbled over this German mouthful: Kaulquappe. It's pronounced (or should I say croaked) "CALL-kvuh-peh." It helps to imagine your mouth full of gnats.
In May, at an outdoor celebration with fireworks, I learned that the German word for cotton candy was Zuckerwatte, or "sugar stuffing." Jana and I had invited Sandrine, a friend visiting from France, to the celebration, and we loved the French word for this sticky treat: barbe papa, which means "Dad's beard." At first we misunderstood and thought that Sandrine had translated it as "dead beard," which was equally amusing.
Sandrine and Jana were thrilled to learn three useful English words: "thingamabob" (defined in the dictionary as a "thingamajig"), "doohickey" (defined as a "doodad"), and their favorite, "whatchamacallit" (which my dictionary doesn't even attempt to define). They repeated these expressions over and over, and sure enough, they began to sound silly.
Though perhaps not quite as silly as "mow the lawn"!
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society