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What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever said in a foreign language by accident?
My Russian is rudimentary.
I was a PhD student. There was another PhD student, from Moscow. She was a single mum. She did not want any unwelcome attention, so she went with the cover story that she was married, and the fella was back in Moscow.
I did IT oddjobs in the department. In fact, it got to the stage where I’d avoid going in to the department, because the minute I’d walk in the door, every PhD student in the building would jump on me with their IT problems.
But I liked Ekaterina. So, in between banter in bad Russian and talk of literature and morphology, I found myself repairing her laptop.
At one stage, I needed a mouse for her laptop. So I stormed out from the sideroom I was at, and exclaimed:
—Катя! Где твой муж?
Excellent bit of triangulation there, I thought. Mūs, μύς, mouse: I’d heard the word muž somewhere in Russian, that must be the Russian word for mouse.
Ekaterina looked startled, and stared at me:
—Где твой муж?
Ekaterina stared at me some more.
—I think… that is something of a personal question.
I looked at her bewildered.
—… I’m just asking where your mouse is. What do you mean, personal?
Katia did a double take, and started guffawing.
And guffawed some more.
No, muž is not Russian for “mouse”.
It is, however, Russian for “husband”.
A few months later, Katia said that she doesn’t want to play games with her friends, and no, there was no husband.
No, nothing happened. But at least her laptop got fixed!