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Of false cognates and unfriendly porpoises


Simcha Fisher - published on 06/20/16

What’s worse than being dreadfully confused? Being dreadfully confused, and not even knowing it.

I ran across this audio clip (followed by a second video with part 2) of an LP my sister and I used to listen to over and over again when we were little. It’s Danny Kaye performing a collection of familiar and obscure fairy tales, complete with sound effects and brilliantly crazy voices, and it’s one of those rare childhood favorites that really holds up.

The first one is Clever Gretel. I can still recite it from memory: “She liked nothing better than to eat. So? She worked as a cook . . . One day Gretel’s master came to the kitchen and said, ‘Gretel! For dinner we are having tonight a guest. And you will be so kind as to cook for us two chickens as niiiice as you can.'”

Only, with the ridiculous, corny accent he uses, “chickens” is “shick’ns.” My oldest sister Devra apparently heard this record a million times, too. When she first travelled to Liechtenstein for graduate school, she had already been on the go for many, many, many hours, and was completely exhausted and loopy, and didn’t really know German yet. She found herself alone on a train at dinnertime, way too far from home, and the menu was full of impenetrable German. Then she saw Schinken listed, and  . . . her Danny Kaye training came back to her. Yes, she would like a little Schinken! Just the thing! A few slices of white meat, maybe a little salad on the side.

Of course, Schinken doesn’t mean “chicken.” It means “ham” — specifically, a vast, shimmering slab of greasy, rosy ham staring up at her with unmistakable menace. Welcome to your new life! Poor Devra. False cognates can be so cruel, especially when mixed with ideas formed in childhood.

My mother grew up with Yiddish-speaking relatives, and she says that when she heard the verse, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup runneth over,” she heard “cup” as “kop” — which, of course, means “head.” Makes sense. Drip, drip, drip.

This next one isn’t really a false cognate, but just a kid trying to make sense out of a confusing world. We used to listen to the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof all the time, too. When the daughter who’s travelling to Siberia is waiting for the train, she says in an anguished voice, “Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again.” I puzzled over this for a long time, and finally decided she was saying, “Got a long nose when we shall see each other again.” I figured she would be very old when they saw each other again, and the oldest person I knew was my grandmother — and she did, indeed, have a very long nose.

Two last stories of language confusion, which I love because they demonstrate how kids are so ready to believe that they alone are intelligent, and the rest of the world is just nuts. These are from the website “I Used to Believe”:

Not knowing the word “yield” as a child, I initially thought this was how one spelled “y’all”. I figured the signs on the road were put there by the city to be welcoming to tourists, though it seemed like a poor strategy to me personally.

And finally:

When I was about 7 or 8, we had to look up lists of words for homework. One of my words was ‘infiltrate’ and the definition I found was ‘To enter secretly with an unfriendly purpose.’ Somehow I misread it as ‘To enter secretly with an unfriendly porpoise’ and I wondered why somebody had made a word for that, as it couldn’t be that common.

Silly adults.

Now you tell one!

Ham hock photo via Wikimedia Commons

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