In a twist

About ten years ago, a Dutch friend told me one of the most epic “lost in translation” stories I’ve ever heard. I re-told the story many times over the next couple of years, but hadn’t thought about it for a long time… until last week, when I suddenly found myself telling it twice in five days, both times in the context of a conversation started by someone else. Funny how that happens. Anyway, I realised that I’ve never shared the story on my blog, so here goes!


The story took place in my Dutch friend’s second year in Canada, when she and a Canadian colleague were invited to a mutual friend’s wedding. This was the first Canadian wedding my Dutch friend (let’s call her D) had attended, so she wasn’t sure of the dress code – specifically, whether she should wear pantyhose. Naturally, she asked her Canadian colleague (let’s call her C) for advice… although, unfortunately, her translation of pantyhose was not ideal.

This is the conversation that was relayed to me by D who, by the way, speaks almost perfect English, usually rather loudly…

Before the wedding, in the workplace:

D: “I’m going shopping this weekend to buy a dress for the wedding. I was wondering, is it usually expected that women should wear panties at Canadian weddings?”

C: “WHAT?! Um, yes, definitely!”

D: “Really? Even in the summer?!”


D: “I’m surprised, because the West coast is usually so laid back! But OK”

A few weeks later, at the wedding:

D: “Hey, C! You told me everybody would be wearing panties, but you’re not wearing any!”

C: “I most certainly am!”

D: “I can clearly see that you are not wearing panties! In fact, I think I’m the only woman here who is!”


Ten years on, and this still makes me laugh…

My second-best “lost in translation” story involved a very fun, vivacious and attractive Swedish friend, who was a good skier but decided to keep me company on the bunny hill when I just learning. Rather than be frustrated and bored on skis while all our other friends were off at the top of the mountain, blasting down the black diamonds, she decided to try snowboarding for the first time instead. She took some advice from a mutual friend who was a good boarder and took herself off to the rental shop while I was having my ski lesson. She met up with me later, already better at boarding than I was at skiing, and told me how confused she was by her experience at the rental place:

“[good boarder friend] told me to get a strap-on board rather than a step-on, so I went into the shop and I asked this really cute Aussie guy for a strap-on, and he just laughed and laughed and laughed at me! The next guy did the same! It was so weird! They only had step-ons in the end anyway!”

After I stopped laughing, I was able to enlighten her…

Oh, the joys of working with colleagues from all over the world!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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20 Responses to In a twist

  1. chall says:

    Of course the added joy is that it was a Swedish girl asking for the strap-on. Oh my, I died laughing…. as with the panties 😉

    A few months into my post-doc I told my co-workers about the “pearl necklace my old professor gave me” as a dissertation present…. yep. Had NO idea what that was either. (It was really a real necklace made of pearls, a very nice pressie.) They DIED laughing seeing that I didn’t understand why it was such a gem to say. As for me, I almost died realising I’d told that story to some faculty members a few days earlier when they told me what it meant. Oh the translation woes… 😉

  2. Nina says:

    Oh, the panties, such a hard one for us Dutch. In fact I clearly remember our English teacher in high school telling us about panties vs pantyhose.
    What she didn’t tell us and which has been my largest translation-misunderstanding so far, is the dual meaning of the word “beaver”. As a student I was roaming the streets of Amsterdam one night and this cute, Canadian guy came up to us asking where he could get some beaver. So, I went into a naturalistic explanation of why there are no beavers in the Netherlands. When he realised I didn’t know what he was talking about he nearly peed his pants, and left me in great confusion. Later one of my male friends was able to enlighten me.

    • chall says:

      Is is especially hard for Dutch Nina? The panties and the pantihose I mean? Why? Are they similar in Dutch? Just curious. The beaver is nowadays similar in swedish btw. Not sure if it was before but the last 15 years at least…. (or maybe because that¨s when I would’ve picked it up as “sexual” … not sure..)

      • Nina says:

        well, yes, in Dutch, “panty” means “pantyhose”, and because “panty” sounds so English (in fact, it is, but just a different use of the word I suppose), we Dutch assume it has the same meaning in English.

  3. Colin Rosenthal says:

    Once had a female american friend who took a job in a pub in one of the rougher areas of Cambridge. She was naturally confused by a lot of the banter (or, as we would now call it, abusive sexual harrasment) but it was the comments about her knickers that really flew over her head – “knickers” being, for her, some variety of knee-length trouser.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Hi Colin, welcome to the blog! Sorry for the delay in liberating your first comment from moderation – all future comments will go through first time now.

      Knickers is a great word, much better than panties. “Oh, KNICKERS” is a great mild expletive too 🙂

  4. Mike says:

    This is precisely why we have troosers, briefs, tights and dildos back here in the mother country.

    • chall says:

      do I want to know what a dildo is? in this context? I wound understand thongs…. but really? can dildo mean anything but?

    • Mike says:

      I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m sure at least some people don’t want a dildo anywhere near their butt.

  5. Cromercrox says:

    I must be too old, but I didn’t get the strap-on or pearl-necklace allusions. These days I rely on Crox Minor (aged 15) to keep me abreast apprised of the latest fashionable obscenities.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Chall, I’ve had to have the pearl necklace thing explained to me too – but luckily in a less embarrassing context than yours! Hope this post didn’t bring back too many traumatic memories for you 😀

    Nina, I’m glad my friend had a different English teacher, because I love this story far too much to give it up! Love the beaver story too!

    Mike, yes, it’s definitely less confusing. BTW it still cracks me up when people talk quite openly about bruising their fannies…

    Henry, please don’t ask your daughter (or any 15 year-olds) to explain those two terms… may I suggest Google, but not at work?

  7. bean-mom says:

    Um, I admit that I didn’t know the slang meaning of “pearl necklace” until just now. I am very innocent . . .

    And damn, chall, a pearl necklace (the nice one, made of real pearls?!) I’ve never heard of such a nice dissertation gift from a PI! Mine gave out books! He was a bird-watching fanatic, and gave me a field guide to birds. (I have no particular interest in birds).

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      I know, right?! The PI I did my undergrad research project with gave me a nice pen, but my PhD and postdoc supervisors didn’t give me any gifts as individuals (although they both hosted a leaving party at their own homes for me, and contributed to group gifts – a (now sadly obsolete, but not thrown away for sentimental reasons) film camera from my PhD, and a kayak bag from my postdoc).

    • chall says:

      I’ll see if I can dig up a photo. It became common for a bit at my old place to give necklaces or fancy stuff to the phds. I mean, some men got a painting or something more useful… I might have been the first one in the string of necklaces though…. now that I think about it.

      My professor and I went through some rougher times with lots of people in the group having to quit due to cut funding and stuff like that (probably like plenty of grads and their supervisor in a harsh climate). And then the last year we got along well and he was greatful (hm? glad? relieved?) we could part on good terms. I published three papers before defending thesis and had two more in pipeline and got a post doc in a good place so he felt he had done well – and so had I…. odd perhaps but a good memory in the end. I don’t use the necklace plenty, since it is a long one, but sometimes 🙂

  8. Cromercrox says:




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