Fun with Ambiguity

One thing that’s fun about living in a (very) foreign country (not that it’s foreign, of course, to the folks who are from here)–in this case, Korea–is that you sometimes see signs in your own language that either don’t make sense or have an unintended double meaning.

For example, not far from here is a hair salon with a sign above its window that reads Nouveau Vague Hair Shop.  One imagines a woman exiting the place with her head–literally–in a cloud.  

Or there’s another establishment up the road from there whose sign declares Coffee Soup.  Mmmm, my favorite–cream of caffeine.

A few years ago I had the privately enjoyed ironic pleasure of seeing a girl in her early twenties, roughly half my age, wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed:  I WAS IN ‘NAM WHEN YOU WERE IN MOM!  I know–It was an alarming revelation to me too.

Even more startling, though less whimsical, was the sight of a female Korean college student in a bookstore wearing a blood-red T-shirt with a HUGE swastika emblazoned in round white circle on the front.  I was too mortified and shocked to say anything to her; the fact is, she probably had no idea what it signified, since an inverted swastika is a Buddhist symbol that’s not uncommon in Seoul on the doors of places sympathetic to the King of Calm.

Sitting on the bus the other day, I chuckled at another T-shirt message worn by a middle school girl:  MRS. COMA.  Somebody bring that woman a bowl of coffee soup!

The other night my wife Jina insisted on going out for Mexican food and meeting a friend for coffee, even though I had to get up at 6:30 the following morning to teach English to a group of businessmen in the manufacturing industry.

Tom n’ Tom’s Coffee Shop, open 24 hours a day for people who can’t get enough of those nocturnal jitters and Herbert Lom-like optical twitches, had printed on the wrappers of their hermetically-sealed disposable “moist towelettes” the curious legend:  Live With Nature.

I told my wife and our friend that it reminded me of the immortal motto of the classic Japanese fast food restaurant, Mos Burger (short for “most delicious hamburger”):  All Nature Was Full of Life.

And yet, while the Japanese message bore the wistful poignancy of a haiku written by some contemplative Zen Buddhist monk living in a temple at the foot of a snowy-peaked mountain adorned by burbling streams and chirping birds in defiance of encroaching asphalt, the hand-towel’s motto sounds downright grumpy.

“Oh, okay, goddamnit.  I’ll live with nature.  What a pain in the ass!”

Nature really is annoying, isn’t it?  I wish people would stop talking about how beautiful it is and finish destroying it already (oh yeah–it’s probably going to be the one to destroy us first; I guess it’s a matter of “kill or be killed” from here on in, with Nature the predicted winner in my book–not to sound like a traitor to civilization or anything, which, in the words of Garrett Morris’ baseball-playing immigrant on Saturday Night Live, has been “berry berry good to me.”).

But it’s not only non-native writers of English who mix up their meanings sometimes.  After all, even as esteemed a source of news and journalism as the New York Times yesterday bore the headline:  “Hope for Spine Injuries.”

Thanks.  Don’t mind if I do.  Is it okay if I wish them upon someone else instead of myself?  I’ve got enough problems already without having a broken back.

Several years ago, when I moved out of a group house in Boston into another one in a nearby suburb, I found that a couple of precious T-shirts I’d bought in Japan had mysteriously disappeared.  One of them read:  “Modern Liberalism:  Reasons Why My Opinions Should Govern Yours.”  I got to wear it maybe a total of ten times before it vanished.

The other one, which I liked even better, depicted a 1950’s-style illustration of a clean-cut man running stoically on a giant gerbil wheel in the background, while his (house)wife stood in the foreground, pointing back at him with a cheerful grin and confident comportment.

The caption read in lovingly flamboyant letters:  “I Love That Man!  He’s No Welfare Scum!”

The capper is that I think the guy who took them was a housemate who was too lazy to keep a job, was freeloading off his mom for rent (okay–I’ve been a parasite myself several times throughout my adult life and am in no position to cast stones, but I always wanted to be a baseball pitcher when I grew up; too bad I never got around to either–pitching or growing up, that is), and pilfering food regularly from another housemate from a shared fridge in the kitchen, leading the latter to lose his temper and demand that the guy move out, which he did–most probably with the T-shirts in question–not that I can prove anything or have anything against him anymore now that I’ve safely run him over with my car. 

Great–next thing I know, I’ll find out my little joke has been misconstrued by the N. S. A., who’ll tell me the dude actually was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and now they’ve found their suspect.

“Coincidence, fellas.  Does the word mean anything to you, or does everything have to have a hidden meaning?”

While teaching in Japan, which had a lot more laugh-out-loud examples of wacky, surreal-sounding English than even the most inspired native speaker could have come up with (most of which, sadly, I failed to record for posterity), I noticed that one of my elementary school students had a pencil case that read:  “Active Club:  We Are All Active Club Members.”  I wondered how his classmates excluded from membership felt.  Or maybe they belonged to the Passive Club.

But I must yield the floor to my old flat-mate Norman in Bondi, Australia, where my Japanese ex-girlfriend and I lived for a few months before moving to nearby Paddington many years ago, for the climactic examples of the genre worthy of Richard Lederer’s honorable collection, Anguished English.

Norman claimed that while staying at a hotel in India, a sign there read:  “We offer you all the cumfarts of home.”

Talk about cringe-worthy typos!

Finally, and I hesitate to include this one for fear of offending more sensitive readers, but if you’re squeamish about certain taboo expressions, please read no further and no one will get hurt–

Otherwise, follow me.

Norman also mentioned a political rally where one candidate representing something called the Country Party got up to speak.  In an effort to ingratiate himself to the crowd, he said, “As you all know, I’m a Country member.”

From the back, a heckler cried out (and Norman, who was Australian himself, put on a heavy Aussie accent to provide the full effect for the punchline):

“Yes, we remimbah!”

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