There are some linguistic faux pas that are mildly amusing, and then there are those that you’ll be reliving for the rest of your life with your innards squirming like a bucket of maggots under a floodlight. And, oh boy, this one will stay right up there in #1 position until the day I draw my last breath.
But let’s first set the scene. In June 2015, my friend Noelia and I embarked on a drive across the searingly hot Spanish Peninsula, from our homes in central Spain all the way down to the Algarve, Portugal. My Portuguese teacher kindly let us use her sea view apartment in the little town of Alvor for a week – an offer two gals obsessed with Portuguese food could not possibly refuse.
All was perfect with the abode, except for the minor matter of flat remote control battery, which meant that we could not access our allocated parking space. The next morning, we made our way to the local supermarket to buy a replacement battery (as well as loading up on delicious Portuguese cheese).
Now, the Portuguese language is rather tricky to pronounce, and, as in all languages, small deviations can make a huge difference to the meaning of words. Even though Noelia and I both speak fairly passable tourist-level Portuguese and we thought we knew the word for “battery” (pilha), our attempts at locating one in the store was but met by several pairs of quizzically raised eyebrows.
Our remote control required an N-size battery, which is even tinier than AAA, and so “We need a really small one, like this” were among the words that accompanied our hand gestures involving tumb and index finger indicating the size of the desired object.
Eventually, it dawned on the beleaguered members of staff what it was we were looking for, and they ushered us to the appropriate shelf, but, in the end, the store did not sell this particular kind.
While waiting in line to pay for our mountains of cheese, we were discussing, with obvious frustration, how hard it could possibly be to get hold of a silly little battery.
At this point, the guy behind us in the queue, a man in his sixties who could not help earwigging our (Spanish) conversation, cracked up laughing. Once he had managed to recover sufficient breath (but not a straight face), he told us what we had, in fact, been asking for.
Suddenly the staff’s perturbed facial expressions made sense… The helpful bystander to our phonetic phallacy also reliably informed us that, in Portugal, they did not, in fact, have small ones.
It subsequently transpired that Noelia, despite being blessed with a rather forgiving Mediterranean complexion, does not carry off the shade of beetroot very well. As for myself, I can’t say, as I had cringed into a tiny little ball ready to be swallowed by the Earth that was surely about to open up its merciful maws.
You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com