Avoid the Oops

Using Embarrassing, Inappropriate or Offensive Words 

“I am very pregnant; I do not like beans.”

It’s easy to say the wrong thing when you’re in another country and dealing with a language barrier. Suzanne Miller, director of Nursing for St. Luke’s Wood River Hospital in Ketchum Idaho, knows this well.

While in college, Miller studied in Guadalajara, Mexico, where she had a mix-up with the Spanish word “embarazada,” which of course, sounds like embarrassed. However, it doesn’t mean embarrassed — at all.

 “For two weeks, I didn’t eat my meals because they always included refried beans. Finally, my host mother asked me [in Spanish] “Do you not like my cooking?’ So then I said  [in Spanish], ‘I’m so, so embarazada, because I don’t like beans.’ My roommate, Jen, was fluent in Spanish and told me, ‘You just told Señora that you are very, very pregnant.’ Senora was stunned at first but Jen eventually cleared it up.” — Suzanne Miller.

To avoid issues with communication, many US travelers head to the UK, Australia and New Zealand because these countries share the same language as the US. Or do they? Can you say the wrong thing in your native tongue when you are traveling in an English-speaking country? Absolutely! Slang varies from dialect to dialect.

Speaking of embarrassment, here are some terms that may make for an awkward moment or even get you into trouble while you are traveling in other English-speaking countries. 

© Plot Spoiler; Wikimedia Commons

Fanny Pack, in general, it is just something to completely avoid anyway. However, if you must use one, then don’t speak of it. Fanny is basically women’s genitalia in the UK, Australia and New Zealand — not bottom as in the US. You can imagine what might happen if you were to say, “My fanny pack has too much in it and it is in an awkward position.” Yep…avoid wearing and talking about a fanny pack.

Period — you probably won’t talk about grammar while traveling, but be aware that period means only one thing in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Menstruation. “Full stop” is what you want to mention if you are talking about the punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. If you want more details on the consequences of using this term, see the Travel Oops post, “Getting Schooled in Aussie Slang.” https://traveloops.com/2012/08/02/getting-schooled-in-aussie-slang/

You will probably not come across this next term unless you are talking about school supplies. However, it is worth noting that if someone in Australia, New Zealand or some parts of the UK ever asks you for or wants to borrow a rubber, he or she is not talking about condoms.  A rubber is an eraser. (When we lived in Australia, it freaked me out when my five-year-old son, who was doing homework, asked me if we had any “rubbers” in the house.)

Pants — in the UK, the term “pants” means underwear. So if you like the article of clothing that someone is wearing on his or her bottom half in Great Britain, don’t say, “I like your pants.” Use trousers instead.

© Wikimedia Commons

Root — This can get you into trouble in Australia and New Zealand, especially since both countries are heavy into sports, so it’s easy to talk sports.

Root is slang for having sex — we’re talking one-night stand, meaningless yet quite physical sex. Think f$%k not “making love” sex.

Since Americans use “root” as another word for “support,” it’s easy to say something like, “In the US, I root for the Patriots.” This would translate into you having spirited sex with Tom Brady and all his teammates.

© Stephanie Glaser

Sheila — In the US, Crocodile Dundee made this a recognized term for a female.  However, now it is an outdated term. It’s like calling a woman a “broad” or a “dame” in the US.

These are just lame expressions you should avoid:

“Throw another shrimp on the barbie” is cringer that perhaps we learned from the Outback Steakhouse, restaurant chain. Most Australians do not cook shrimp (which they call “prawns”) on a barbecue.

“Foster’s: Australian for ‘Beer’”— The widely successful and funny US ad campaign for Foster’s Beer, which conveyed the idea that everything in Australia is hard-core, tough and exaggerated, has left many Americans thinking that pretty much Foster’s is THE beer of choice (or perhaps the only beer) in Australia.

Australian businessman Mark Burgoyne says: “Don’t ask ‘so do y’all drink Foster’s then?’  — No one here [in Australia] does. Also, the over exaggerated, ‘G’day mate’ as a way to make a joke just comes across as lame (when people did it to me in the US, I would respond with ‘howdy, pardner,’ as a way to illustrate how silly it sounded.”

Culturally insensitive expressions

Aborigine is considered outdated and derogatory to indigenous people in Australia. It is like using “Negro” in the United States. Both terms are too closely associated with discriminatory policies and racist attitudes of the recent past. While “aboriginal” may not seem that different, it is the preferred term to use when generally referring to indigenous Australians or culture. For example, “I would like to see some aboriginal art.”

In Ireland, no matter how proficient you are at doing shots, do not order an Irish Car Bomb (yikes – with all the history of internal strife, tragic violence and unrest in Ireland, it would be like asking for a drink called a “911 Hijacker” in the US.

A request for a Black and Tan also would be very troubling for an Irish bartender or for Irish pub goers to hear. In Ireland, a Black and Tan is not a half and half combination of Guinness and Bass beers as it is in the United States.

© Liftarn; Wikimedia Commons

 A Black and Tan is associated with a terrorist military group of the early 1920’s. Not long after World War I, during the Revolution in Ireland, the Irish were attacked and terrorized by military units formed by Winston Churchill and hired by the British affiliated Irish government at the time. The brutal mercenary groups, comprised mostly of British World War I veterans, were nick-named the “Black and Tans” because of the color of their uniforms. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/irelands-war-of-independence-the-chilling-story-of-the-black-and-tans-475005.html)

According to the UK’s newspaper The Independent:

Although the Black and Tans force was deployed for only a couple of years, from 1920 to 1922, nationalist Ireland still associates it with murder, brutality, massacre and indiscipline in the years leading to southern Ireland’s independence.

In this instance, its reputation is not based on any republican propaganda and exaggeration, since there is no dispute that “the Tans” killed and destroyed on a large scale. Nor did they make any secret of their ferocious reprisals. When a Tan was killed in Cork, they burnt down more than 300 buildings in the city centre and afterwards proudly pinned pieces of burnt cork to their caps.

Ultimately, avoiding the use of embarrassing, inappropriate or offensive words is a matter of doing a bit of homework before you travel to another country. Just remember if you say something awkward, you can’t use a rubber to take it back.


9 thoughts on “Avoid the Oops

  1. Ahh those Lost in Translation moments are the best. I remember working with an American in Japan. He came into to work and loudly announced “I am pissed, so pissed” I was a bit concerned and the caring Kiwi I am, suggested he go home and I would cover his classes. He looked a bit surprised and and asked why? After all he was just pissed. “Exactly” I said, “you could get sacked for that” He still looked really flummoxed, I think maybe he thought I was after his job. He finally asked if you could get fired in Japan for being angry. Now it was my turn to look confused. The penny dropped, we were both speaking English but I was speaking Kiwi and he was speaking American. In NZ, I’m pissed means I’m drunk. In the States as I learned it means I’m angry. In NZ, I’m angry is I’m pissed off. So here we are supposedly speaking the same language but definitely speaking a different lingo! You can imagine the confused state I get into in Japan where they really are speaking another language!

    • Hi Leanne! I laughed so hard at your comment — I soooo remember the confusion with “pissed” in Australia. I had so many moments with my Year 8 students; probably the worst was when a kid asked me if I had a “rubber” and I lectured him about how inappropriate the question was, and that, while I was glad he was thinking of safe sex, he was too young to be having it. Then another one of the students threw him an “eraser” and realizing that a “rubber” was not a “condom,” naturally, I was mortified about what I had said.

      Yes, I can only imagine what it is like in Japan! I’m looking forward to reading your posts. I will be traveling to Japan in November 2015, and I’m eager to learn everything I can!

      Thanks for reading and for the comment!


      Steph 🙂

      • Thanks, Leanne — As the trip gets closer, I’m sure I will have loads of questions. I’m bummed because we will be in Japan in late November, so it looks like the sumo stables will be closed to the public because of the Championships. I imagine it is quite difficult and $$$ to get tickets to the event. Plus, it sounds like it’s nowhere near Tokyo or Kyoto. Oh well, it’s not like my sister and I won’t completely fill our agenda!

      • Yes November tourney is in Fukuoka in Kyushu. If you have a rail pass and are down south you could easily jump on a bullet train and go. Cheap seats in Tokyo are about 4000 yen $40 or so?

      • I have bought tickets using this before

        There is a hefty booking service charge of 1000 yen per ticket but it is all in English. We booked the tickets and picked them up at the venue. You have to show the Credit card you used to book the tickets with. I had a couple of issues that needed sorting out and I could email them in English and got a good reply back. They were very easy to deal with. I think the tickets usually go on sale about a month and a half before hand. Will let you know how it works later as I will be buying some for friends who are going in March.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s