Year 2 / Issue 12 / In Rome Be a Roman / Part II / Mei Shao

In Rome, Be a Roman
Part II. In Canada, Talk like a Canadian, eh?
By: Mei Shao

Moving to Canada, English is a challenge to most of the immigrants. It is even more so when it comes to understand idiomatic and colloquial expressions. In English, as in any other languages, there are idioms and colloquial expressions which are almost fixed sets of words which cannot be taken literally or word by word. If you do take it word by word, it may cause misunderstanding or very often lead to laughter. The good thing is, though, the laughter is always good-natured because people realize that is just a language “barrier” and they expect that from a non-native speaker. In this issue, I have collected a few real stories which involve this type of misunderstanding.

Story 1

Giancarlo was visiting Canada from Italy. One day, he was sitting in a coffee shop beside the window on a warm spring day, enjoying his espresso. Suddenly he heard someone shouting “look out”! Giancarlo leaned over the window pane and looked out of the window. Then, a flower pot, falling from upstairs, dropped on his head. Ouch!

Note:Look out” can mean look outside from a window or a room, but it also means “watch out” or “be careful”, and is usually used to warn someone of some kind of danger. Clearly in the above story, someone was trying to give Giancarlo a warning of the falling flower pot, but…

Story 2

Paul is from France and he has recently experienced an emergency while he was on board of a cruise. During the cruise, one day, it suddenly started to pour. People who were lying on the deck and enjoying the sun shine and good food had to run for cover. All the food was going to be ruined in minutes. The captain called out “all hands on deck”. Paul put his hands on the deck as soon as he heard this. As you can imagine, with people running around, his hands were stomped on more than just once. Ouch!

All hands on deck” is a set idiom which means everybody offers his or her help, especially in an urgent situation. It doesn’t mean to put your hands on the deck. A similar idiom is “roll up one’s sleeves”. “Roll up one’s sleeves” is a very vivid expression to mean “get down to work”, “start to work hard”.

Story 3

Jerry is the product manager for my company in China. This spring, he came to Toronto for a course and business meeting. Of course, we were all happy to see him. Kevin, without knowing Jerry’s arrival, was excited and said he was very glad to see him and then he asked Jerry, “What has brought you here, Jerry?” Jerry hesitated for a second, and then replied, “The airplane”. We all laughed good-naturedly and thought he was cute.

Note:What has brought you here”; Obviously Jerry didn’t quite understand Kevin’s question. Kevin was basically asking what Jerry was in Toronto for or why he came to Toronto this time, but Jerry thought he was asking how he came to Toronto, hence the answer “the airplane”.

Story 4

Johan is from Sweden and has been dating a local girl, Kate, for a few months. One Saturday morning, he came to Kate’s house to pick her up for a day trip to a nearby town. When he arrived at the house, Kate’s mother told Johan that Kate was not up yet and asked him to wait a little bit in the living room. After about half an hour, Kate’s mother told Johan apologetically that Kate was not down yet.  Johan was confused and said, “If Kate was not up, and was not down, where is she?”

Note:up and down”; At Johan’s arrival, Kate’s mother said Kate wasn’t up yet. What she meant was Kate was still in bed and hadn’t got up yet. Later when she said Kate wasn’t down yet, she actually meant Kate was still upstairs and hadn’t come downstairs yet.

Story 5

Emily was new to the company and had just started to know people. One day, she offered to do a run to Tim Hortons and get coffee for the team but forgot to ask what everybody liked. So to make it simple, she just got coffee for everyone. Michelle, who didn’t usually drink coffee, refused the coffee politely and said “thank you, but it is not my cup of tea”. Emily replied, “No, it is not tea, it is coffee.” Everybody had a good laugh and explained to Emily the actual meaning of “my cup of tea”.

Note:One’s cup of tea” usually means one’s favorite or what someone likes. For example, you can say “jazz music is not really my cup of tea. I like country music better”.

I am sure you have a lot of your stories like this in learning English. These are just a few among hundreds of others. But hopefully this collection has given you a sense of light heartedness and taken away some of the stress while trying to grasp the language as best as you can.