Who’s Your True Friend, Fish or Banana?

Steamed Golden Saba Banana

My colleague Audrey was on a business trip in Manila. One night she walked in a local restaurant and ordered ‘steamed saba‘ from the menu. A few minutes later, a plate with steamed bananas was served. She was very puzzled and asked the waiter, where’s my fish?! The waiter was even more puzzled than her.

This is not a ghost or love story, but an awkward cultural misunderstanding situation. The spoiler is actually a word that sounds similar in two languages, but differs significantly in meaning. Ironically, we call such a word ‘false friend‘ in linguistics. A friend? You probably know the cliche of a British bloke talking about ‘football‘ to an American dude… Yep, that’s the friend.

When Parker Pen entered Mexican market, it advertised that the pen ‘won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’. But it was mistranslated to ‘no te embarazará chorreándose en tu bolsillo’, which means ‘won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you‘. Well, is impregnating someone embarrassing? It depends… But we have to blame embarazada ([embaɾaˈθaða]), a Spanish false friend of embarrassed ([ɛmˈbarəst]), on embarrassing the translator…

You won’t be surprised there are false friends who look similar as well. In Japanese Kanji, 手紙 (tegami) means a letter, which is written by hands () on paper (). Its Chinese false friend 手紙 (shou3 zhi3), unfortunately stands for toilet paper, which is paper () used by hands () to clean… Well, hope this won’t trigger another Sino-Japanese war.

Sometimes, the false friend may drive you crazy. One day somewhere, you feel hungry and like to order chips. In London you get French fries, while in New York you receive potato crisps… George Bernard Shaw famously said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”. I believe this applies to other common languages too. As I know, if you ask for 土豆 (tu3 dou4) in Taipei, peanuts will be handed as they’re small beans () grown in soil (); but in Shanghai, you should expect large beans () grown in soil () — potatoes… Yay, almighty friend potatoes can be turned into chips to confuse Britons or Yankees.

Let’s get back to Manila, where saba is actually a cooking banana in Tagalog. Steamed saba banana is a popular dish among Filipinos. Coincidentally, 鯖の塩焼き (Saba Shioyaki or Grilled Mackerel), is a well-known seafood entrée in Japanese cuisine. So a Katakana false friend サバ ([sa-ba]), the Atlantic mackerel, jumped into poor Audrey’s mind that night.

Fin (Hey I’m French, not a part of your fish…).

Grilled Mackerel - Saba Shioyaki - 鯖の塩焼き

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