We writers deal in language, its power and its influence. But it can be a trap for the unwary. I imagine all of us are capable of spoonerisms and misplaced words in our own language but the dangers of using a language not our mother tongue merely increases, sometimes, exponentially, the risk. Take this cautionary tale from my days at the legal coal face
Martin – not his real name – agreed to move to Amsterdam to run our office there. He spoke German fluently and French to a high level. Being a diligent cove he thought he should learn some Dutch, even if only so he could use it socially. The course was intensive and he had been in post about a fortnight when he was invited to a colleague’s party.
Great, thought our hero, I can try a little light Dutch, to show I’m trying.
His host was impressed on his arrival and complimented his accent. He took him to the main room and introduced him to a group. They all spoke English immaculately but it wasn’t long before two moved away to say hello to a new arrival, leaving Martin with a woman who had said little to that point.
Martin launched into his Dutch, asking how this woman knew the host. She looked relieved and admitted her English was only so-so and grateful he spoke Dutch. For five minutes Martin nailed the Anglo-Dutch entente. Then the woman asked, ‘Are you married?’
Martin had done this in class. He took a moment and replied, ‘No I’m divorced.’
Immediately the woman’s expression changed, from shock and surprise, through embarrassment ending with a moue of distaste. She turned and walked away. Martin felt confused and upset. Was she particularly religious that any mention of divorce upset her? Maybe she had just been through a difficult experience herself.
He watched as his host listened to the woman, clearly recounting why Martin had upset her. He frowned, then nodded and put a comforting arm round his shoulder, easing her away.
Martin was mortified. What had he done? His host was a busy man but Martin tracked him down to apologise and hopefully to obtain some absolution.
‘Jan, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset her.’
‘Strange thing to say. Does that pass for flirting in England?’
‘What. Sorry, I don’t understand. I only told her I was divorced.’
The host took a moment, his expression, starting at surprise, like the woman’s, before morphing, but in his case from confusion to hysteria. ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ he finally managed to say, wiping his eyes. ‘You need more lessons. I’m afraid you didn’t say ‘I’m divorced but rather I’m circumsized. She thought it was some sort of coded come on.’