urinals and water closets

One of the very few points of contact between Communist Romania and Western Europe in Cold War days was rugby union football. Tours by world-class countries and teams were eagerly anticipated and warmly welcomed. The then President of the English R.F.U. accompanied a goodwill visit by England’s national side. At the after-match official reception – attended by Nicolai Ceauceșcu himself – the President had to give a speech. Wanting to please his hosts and open with a Romanian phrase, he memorised the words written on the outside of the toilet doors, reasoning that they meant “Ladies” and “Gentlemen”. His speech got a huge laugh and roars of approval. Gratified, the visiting English dignitary was pleased his jokes had gone down so well. And then an aide to Ceauceșcu politely said that the Exalted Comrade had been most amused at the speech. But, President Ceauceșcu wishes to know. Why did you begin with Urinals And Water-Closets?

I spend rather too much of my time browsing a website called TV Tropes, which describes itself as ‘THE ALL-DEVOURING POP-CULTURE WIKI’. It started with television, but now includes movies, theatre, literature movies and comic books/manga. Most tv shows, movies etc have their own page, and there are ‘meta’ pages discussing, for example, the various kinds of heroes, protagonists, villains, antagonists etc. Sometimes there is a linguistic angle. In fact, there’s a whole section called Artistic License – Linguistics which discusses the ways in which language is used and abused across media. One of these is what they call the “Blind Idiot” Translation, which takes its name from the supposed early computer translation of ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ from English to Russian and back as ‘Invisible Idiot’ or ‘Blind Idiot’. (I’ve got my doubts about that one, which I may expand on in a future post.) This happens for a number of reasons, for example, when a translator mistakes a pair of ‘false friends’ (eg German bekommen (receive) v English become) or chooses the wrong one of a pair or set of homonyms (words which sound or look the same but which have completely different origins and meanings) or polysemes (words which are ‘the same’ or related, but have distinct meanings in distinct contexts).

The story above is taken from the Real Life subpage of the “Blind Idiot” Translation page. As soon as I read it, I had my doubts, for various reasons.

First, ‘urinals’ and ‘water closets’ is a strange division of facilities. In most gender-divided facilities, one room has urinals and seats (for the want of a better word) (for the males) and the other has seats (for the females). Having one room with only urinals would leave the males either with nowhere to sit, or having to enter the ‘ladies room’ to do so.

Second, Romanian is a Romance language, descended from Latin and related to French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Many Latin-derived, French/Italian/Portuguese/Spanish/(English)-related words should be evident. Indeed, I once wrote an article which involved a supposed incident in Romania, and searched for the name of a person involved, to verify that it had happened. I found several articles on seemingly authentic Romanian news sites, and was able to get the gist of story about as easily as I can get the gist of Italian or Spanish (very basically, but enough). So, I would expect that the Romanian words for ladies, gentlemen, urinals and water closets would be at least sort-of identifiable. Sure enough, Google Translate gives doamnelor and Femei for ladies and domnilor for gentleman (cf Latin domina and dominus, and French femme and English female), pisoar for urinal (cf French pissoir and English piss) and toaleta for water closet (cf English toilet, obviously). (Google translate also translates toilet as toaleta.)

Third, a Google search shows that this story is recorded only on this page and a few others in the language section of TV Tropes.

Maybe I can’t expect the then president of the English RFU to have the same interest in language as I do, but it doesn’t take much linguistic knowledge to understand toaleta. I can’t say that it didn’t happen, but I can say that I would need a lot more evidence to accept that it did.

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2 thoughts on “urinals and water closets

  1. The Irish word for “women” is “mná” (Gaelic is “mnathan”, fyi). There are countless jokes about people going to the toilet for the first time in Ireland and men going into the wrong one by mistake because “well, it has all the letters of ‘man’ in it”.

    It is a little confusion because the word for “men” is “fir” in both languages, so things are labelled as “f” for men and “m” for women, which is the opposite of “m” for “male” and “f” for “female” of in English. Usually in grammatical circumstances, the notations are “b” for “feminine” (“boireannach”) and “f” for “masculine” (“fireannach”), so I’ve mis-manipulated a word a few times due to misreading a masculine word as being feminine.

    The become/bekammen thing was an ongoing joke at German school – cousins who “became a bicycle for Christmas”. My favourite Denglisch false friend is probably “Gift”, though – it means “poison” in German!

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  2. Would hospitality owners in Ireland only mark their toilet doors ‘M’ and ‘F’? (just to get a giggle out of seeing non-Gaelic speakers go into the wrong room?!)

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