Mothballs and Healthcare


I hope the title of this post did not throw you.  I am not writing about the effects of mothballs on your health.  The last time I checked mothballs were not hazardous to your health (although you may want to check with your doctor to be absolutely sure).  I am also not writing a political thing about US healthcare because I just don’t want to go there…

Instead I am writing about language today – the good, the bad, and the often confusing aspects of language.

Right now, I am working pretty closely with an Italian guy, and sometimes we have a tough time understanding each other.  Lately he has been helping me learn about business in his country by translating some Italian documents, including news articles.

The other day, he translated an Italian newspaper article about health care and finance.   I read his translation looking for factual information and a summary of the current state of affairs over there.  So I was quite surprised to see that the word “mothballs” had made its way into the English translation.

First, I laughed because any time balls are mentioned I can’t help myself.  I know it’s childish.   

Secondly, I wondered what mothballs had to do with healthcare.  Then I laughed again.

I know some Italian – just the essential phrases, really.  For instance, I know “vorrei un bichierre di vino rosso” is “I would like a glass of red wine”.  I did not know that the Italian word for mothballs is “naftalina”.  I was having a tough time understanding how “mothballs” or “naftalina” could really be in a business article.

So we put our Italian and American heads together.  It took us over 20 minutes to conclude that the author of the article was using a metaphor to describe the current situation in Italian health care (creditors were eating away at the company like mothballs in a closet…). Aah….

This situation got me thinking about some of other confusing language moments I have experienced while working in a global business.  Below are some highlights from my time working with many people from many different countries.

American sarcasm gone wrong:

While debating the merits of a model we were working on at the time, one American colleague would often say to a Serbian colleague, “you’re a real piece of work!”.  The Serb thought it was a complement.  He thought “a real piece of work” meant a work like a musical opus or wonderful piece of artwork.  He didn’t realize he was actually being insulted!

Foreign phrases I have learned:

“I don’t know you from a bar of soap!”  My Malaysian colleague yelled this into the phone one day.  I had not heard it before and thought it was very funny because why would a person be compared to a bar of soap?  Apparently this phrase is quite common in Australia and is akin to the American “I don’t know him from Adam”.

Susan not being so sensible:

My first time in London, I was explaining to my colleagues how New Yorkers spot tourists, which is by spotting their fanny packs.  While my colleagues laughed and blushed, they explained to me that while fanny means a person’s rear in America, it means the front of a person in London.  Oops, did I just say vagina in a professional environment?!

Almost offensive phrases:

An American colleague said to a Brazilian colleague “You’ve got to be shitting me?”  For some reason, I was consulted to try to explain what this meant to the Brazilian.  I struggled with this one.  I don’t know about you, but the literal translation of this sentence gave me a rather unpleasant visual, and I really did not want to have to be so vulgar.  I did want to be thorough and accurate, though.

So I did the only sensible thing, and made sure that I actually understood the potentially offensive word and phrase myself.  It was about 10 years ago this happened, so I actually opened a physical dictionary, but you can check out the online version:

According to the dictionary:

verb (shits, shitting; past and past participle shitted or shit or shat /ʃat/)

  • [no object] expel faeces from the body.
  • [with object] (shit oneself) soil one’s clothes as a result of expelling faeces accidentally.
  • [with object] (shit oneself) be very frightened.
  • [with object] tease or try to deceive (someone).

Phew!  That last definition saved me from vulgarity!  That day we learned that the true meaning of the phrase “you’ve got to be shitting me?” is “you’ve got to be teasing me?”

So while I ended up averting being vulgar in front of my 2 colleagues 10 years ago, I realize I was just extremely vulgar by sharing this story with the entire web!  I’m not extremely worried about it because I know there is merely a small fraction of the web actually reading this!

I assure you that depsite my mention of balls, shit and vagina, I’m really a pretty classy lady!  However, I do feel compelled to Purell my hands and my keyboard after typing such filth!

Do you have any humorous language mishaps?  If so, please share!  I’m sure we could all  use a laugh!

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One thought on “Mothballs and Healthcare

  1. Got a chuckle out of this! I had a Japanese language exchange partner who liked South Park. Lots of “moments” explaining some of things said on that show. 🙂

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