Language: Lobsters and Mishaps

Puno Region

The view from the bus on the way to Puno - somewhere in the region before reaching Juliaca.

Given El Arte Sano is tourism focused, much of my Basic 2 course centers around food: food vocabulary, menus, and situations like ordering and taking orders. To spice things up a bit (pun intended) I brought in a worksheet that profiled strange restaurants around the world. One of these, a restaurant in London called the Archipelago,  serves such things as locust salad and crocodile. I was mystified when my students couldn’t figure out which terms for locust and lobster were appropriate, and why they were such close words in the first place. The consensus seemed to be that the words were opposite the indication of the dictionary:  mangosta and langosta (Don’t ask me which is which, I can’t remember!!).

Yesterday I came across an article about the ritual of cooking lobsters by David Foster Wallace and was fascinated to find out that the word lobster in English is thought to come from “a corrupt form of the Latin word for locust combined with the Old English loppe, which meant spider.” Now having knowledge of the roots of the word, the similarity of the Spanish words make a lot more sense.

A tangential, fascinating bit of history from the article:

“But they themselves [lobsters] are good eating. Or so we think now. Up until sometime in the 1800s, though, lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.”

When I told my students the current status of lobster in the United States as an expensive, indulgent food they seemed to agree with the above opinion. I love learning about these kinds of cultural differences.

Mural

A mural at one of the bus terminals.

Somewhat related is that when learning a new language one is bound to make mistakes – sometimes with hilarious and embarrassing results. (NOTE: Embarazada is pregnant – NOT embarrassed – luckily I learned that before ever saying “Estoy embarazada!”, “I am pregnant.”)

Once when asked for my phone number, I said in response “No me acuerdo mi nombre.” (“I don’t remember my name.”). The ‘b’ in both words makes me think they are the same despite the spanish word for number being numero (like ‘numeral’). I often have to think for a moment before saying the words name and number in spanish or I’m liable to make that mistake.

In the beginning, even the simplest things could be a bit of an ordeal. Getting photocopies was one of those. With my boyfriend in the copy shop, who could generally help me out when I messed up, I repeatedly asked for ‘nuevo’ copies. He and the shopkeeper both looked at me in utter consternation, and I returned their look with my own – NUEVO!! How hard is that?? Well, neuvo is NEW. Nueve is nine. (I still mix them up allll the time.) So when asked again and again for how many I was responding with new instead of nine.

I bought a pastry at the bakery once and, pointedly waving it, asked for the “basura.” Seeing the clerk’s shocked look I realized I must have said something wrong – I meant to ask for “bolsa” a bag, and instead asked for the trash.

Puno region

The somewhat desolate landscape of the Puno region - houses averaged every few miles, nestled into the landscape of mountains and hills.

  • Jason

    LOL! I love it. I’ve had similar problems with mandarin…I heard of a person trying to order steak and accidentally asked the waitress on a date instead because he didn’t have the intonation correct. Same thing with “Thank you”, which could easily turn into something like “shit” using the third tone instead of the second.

  • Anonymous

    Er … that article, Consider the Lobster, is by David Foster Wallace, and one of his most famous. It says so, right there at the top … Mind you, David Grann is pretty good too.

    • http://www.erin-orourke.com Erin O’Rourke

      The link I followed listed David Grann as the author, so I didn’t bother checking out what I thought I already knew. Wasn’t aware it was one of Wallace’s most famous, I guess that disqualifies me from getting into the fan club! But thanks for the correction anyway.

      • Anonymous

        Glad to see you corrected it.