An American Couple in Delft
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Word Play

You have to watch what you say. I mean in the sense of using colloquialisms, not in the sense of being insulting, although that happens, too. For instance, if youíve ever heard the Dutch language spoken, it may sound to you a lot like German. It does to me. Fortunately, I read in a book that the Dutch find that comparison offensive. I met an older Dutch woman and said I had heard that the Dutch found the comparison offensive and she was offended that I would even mention such a thing.

When I was in high school, I learned not to use idiomatic expressions with people who arenít intimately familiar with English. A kid from Argentina moved in across the street from us to live with his sister. Once, when discussing why I never saw him at the bus stop, he said his sister drove him to school leaving at 8:10 a.m. when we had to be there by 8:15 a.m. "Isnít that cutting the cheese pretty thin?" said I. Cheese? He looked at me like I was nuts. I learned my lesson.

But here itís different. I avoid the use of idiomatic expressions, but what passes for ordinary conversation can sound odd, too. We are looking to buy a house and our real estate person is a Dutch man named Timo. Timo called on the phone one day and identified himself. "Hey, Timo, howya doiní." He hesitated just a second and I realized he wondered how is he doing what.

Perhaps the one that gave me the biggest laugh was one night in a restaurant. The Dutch eat dinner late but we eat dinner early so we were the first ones in the restaurant. The maitre dí took our coats and put them on the empty coat rack. By the time we left two hours later (it takes a long time to eat dinner here Ė they arenít too interested in turning over tables), the place was full. I looked for the coats but couldnít find them. The maitre dí saw me looking and promptly went into the pile and retrieved them. How did he do that? He said that he didnít put the coats on the rack at random. Each table is assigned certain hanger numbers and because he knew which was our table, he knew which were our coats. "Way to go!" Way to go where? He knew the words but didnít understand the American context of approval.

The use of individual words is different sometimes. For instance, when the Dutch speak English they use "possible" much more frequently than Americans do. Say you want to use a credit card to pay for something. In the U.S. itís inconceivable that someone doesnít take one, but letís pretend. The proprietor of the store would say something like, "Iím sorry but we donít accept credit cards." Here they say, "Iím sorry but itís not possible to use a credit card." Another example might be if you inquire as to whether or not you could pick something up on Sunday. The response would be not that the store is closed, but rather that itís not possible to pick it up then. An American clearly understands what is meant, but the words are used in a different way.

My favorite, though, is "orange." Quick, what do you think of when you think of "orange?" A fruit? A color? Syracuse? If you picked the third one, you are either related to me or you know my son Bruce, or both. In English, orange is both a fruit and a color. Therefore an orange is orange. So is a tangerine, but that doesnít matter. The Dutch word for the color is oranje. Pretty easy. However, the fruit has a different word which I still have a hard time with. When we first got here and went shopping, we were looking for orange juice. Not juice that is the color orange (although it is, but that could have come from a tangerine, too), but rather juice made from the fruit orange. We learned quickly that the word for juice is sap. Thatís also easy. We saw something called appelsap with a picture of an apple and, using our Sherlock Holmes powers of deduction, quickly realized we were looking at apple juice. Then, on another carton, we saw what appeared to be a picture of an orange and the word that went with it was sinaasappel. The Dutch word for orange the fruit is sinaasappel. I donít know if this is a different strain of apple, or what. I just know that it has made me wonder about some things.

For example, on New Yearís Day in Miami (or the day after this year), thereís a football game called The Orange Bowl. If played in Amsterdam, it would be the Sinaasappel Bowl. The FedEx Sinaasappel Bowl. That sounds wonderful.

In a business meeting when someone makes a point that another person objects to because the points of reference being discussed are unrelated, is he accused of comparing appels and sinaasappels? It would almost seem to make sense to do that. Notice that in English we donít compare grapes and grapefruit although, linguistically speaking that might also make sense. If one compared appels and oranjes, that would be like comparing watermelons and yellows.

The Syracuse sports teams are known as the Orangemen. Would they become the Sinaasappelmen? This is not an easy call to make. The orange in Orangemen means the color because thatís the Syracuse color; everything is orange. However, the little mascot that appears everywhere is a dressed figure of an orange, the fruit.

I am losing little bits of sleep over this and nobody has an answer. I need something else to worry about. Maybe I should get a job.


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008