“Why do all Americans talking about socks?”
My friend Halina peered at me over the edge of her ever-present coffee cup, her green eyes almost obscured by the rising steam.
“Oh. Um…do we?” I asked, thinking hard and stalling for time.
“Yes. My husband and I, we hearing this everywhere.”
The English language torments my friend Halina on a daily basis with its bizarre spellings and irregular tenses. Richard Lederer, who has written about the pummeling English receives from native and non-native speakers alike, reminds us that English is the language in which your nose can run and your feet can smell. It is also the language in which one can say, with a perfectly straight face, that something is a little big or pretty ugly or really fake.
Our idioms, our common turns of phrase, are Halina’s toughest adversaries. If something is not at all difficult, we say it’s ‘as easy as pie.’ But why pie? Why not easy as a jelly doughnut? Or easy as a piece of bread? Or paper? Or fish? We also say that something simple is ‘a piece of cake,’ although there were a few weeks when Halina mistakenly called it ‘a pizza cake’ and I couldn’t bear to correct her. But idioms almost never make sense when you think about them. Just ask anyone who’s been outside when it’s raining cats and dogs.
When her real estate agent told her he was going to stop by one evening, Halina almost went through the roof. “Why he is going to stop buy?” she demanded, tearfully. “We want to sell!” There followed a string of rapid, high-pitched Polish involving a coalition of consonants that the English language has never dared to combine.
Though I’m not the most skilled or knowledgeable defender of our Mother Tongue, I like giving it a go. I explained what “stop by” means. “He just wants to pay you a short visit.”
“Pay me a…” My friend clamped her head tightly between her hands, as if to relieve a severe migraine. “English make me nervous,” she moaned.
Polish is a sensible language, Halina says. The Polish consonants are dependable, and the vowels behave themselves. There is only one word for each object. In Polish you say what you mean. You can sit with your friends and speak Polish and never, ever get a headache.
Our informal Conversational English class began a few years ago, the day Halina asked, “Please, can you explain ‘Piss off’ to me?” She pronounced it ‘peese.’
We were in a hallway teeming with children at the time. “Well, it’s colloquial slang,” I whispered. “Piss can actually be used several different ways…”
“Oh, English!” she muttered, turning it into another swear word.
Once she had the basic definition down, she practiced her tenses. “Yesterday my husband, he peesed me off,” she whispered. “Today, he peeses me off. And tomorrow,” she pointed to the future, which seemed to be located further down the hall, “tomorrow, he will peese me off.”
(I’ve heard her on the phone with him. He probably will peese her off.)
Anyway, at the end of the week Halina skipped out of work armed with English a little more colorful than usual. I pitied those who might find themselves on the receiving end of her new linguistic ammunition- the lady at Starbucks who habitually refuses to understand Halina’s simple request for coffee, perhaps? The guy at the bakery who runs out of kolatchkes? Might any random pedestrian or clothes shopper get hit by the Peese bomb? In two days there could be any number of casualties!
But on Monday morning, she trudged in like the walking wounded. As if cats and dogs had rained all over her parade.
“Dzien dobry!” I said cheerfully, using up about half my Polish and mispronouncing it badly in the process.
Halina swatted my greeting aside like the insect it was. She leaned against the doorframe, and ran a perfectly manicured hand through her short blond hair. “You remember on Friday, we were talking Peese?” she whispered.
“Like Peese, Peesing, Peesed?”
Like most people I am drawn toward tales of carnage with an equal mix of curiosity and dread. “What happened?”
It seems that Halina and her husband went to a party over the weekend. The American hosts seemed very friendly until suddenly, without any provocation, the woman walked up and asked Halina if she wanted a Piss-Off Cake. Halina was shocked and offended, wondering if she had unknowingly overstepped some cultural boundary, broken some American taboo. She and her husband left the party, wrapping themselves in their coats and secure in the knowledge that, as Europeans, they would never do that sort of thing to guests at a party.
And now she wanted me to explain the Piss-Off Cake. This was my chance to heal the rift between our two countries.
“I think,” I said, trying to sound diplomatically neutral, “I think, from all you’ve said, I think the woman was maybe trying to offer you a piece… of… cake. A piece. Like a slice.”
“A peese like a slice?”
“Yeah, we don’t have Piss-Off Cakes,” I assured her.
“Peese of cake, not peese off cake. It sound same to me!” she wailed. She stumbled down the hall in search of coffee, mumbling about cake and parties and ruined opportunities.
That’s the other thing that Halina finds difficult- vowel sounds that are not found in Polish are almost impossible for her to differentiate between. “Piss-off” and “piece of” sound alike to her just as two Polish words she speaks aloud may sound alike to me. Which brings us back to the socks.
Why do all Americans always talking about socks?
“Sex?” I asked. “Maybe Americans are always talking about sex?”
No, Halina was quite sure the word was socks, not sex. She offered some examples. You know, the baseball player socks, and the football team socks, the weather socks…
(Ohhh! Yes it does. Especially when it’s coming down in bockets!)
I called down the hall to where my friend was still muttering about cakes and parties. “Hey, Halina! English socks, huh?”
She turned with a battle-weary laugh. “Yes! English definitely socks!”
Well, maybe sometimes it does.
But it’s sure better than a Piss-Off Cake.
P.S. Check out Twindaddy’s look at the idiom ‘the bee’s knees’ here. His post is the cat’s pajamas!