As translation service providers, we love all things language. One of the most interesting things is how words and phrases can completely change their meaning over time. Awful, for example, used to mean ‘worthy of awe’, and even in our own lifetimes ‘smart’ has changed from meaning ‘well dressed and presented’ to being a synonym for clever. And did you know whenever you call someone Welsh, you’re actually using the old Anglo-Saxon word for foreigner? (Wīlisc).
But of course that means that there is a whole load of words we use nowadays that would have once been very offensive – or at least come from origins that we’d now consider offensive. Here’s a look at just a few.
No can do
This popular phrase is so ubiquitous in spoken language that it almost seems perfectly grammatical. Upon closer inspection, of course, it makes no grammatical sense whatsoever. And there’s a perfectly good reason for this – the original users of this phrase used it to mock the speech patterns of Chinese immigrants who hadn’t yet quite mastered the nuance of English syntax.
Not exactly the most polite way to treat people who are trying to learn your language, is it?
Sold down the river
Ever used ‘sold down the river’ as a synonym for somebody having cheated you or made a fool out of you? Well look on the bright side – you don’t have it nearly as bad as the original Mississippi slaves who were quite literally ‘sold down the river’ to plantations.
This is probably slightly less offensive and more sheer idiocy – but it’s certainly hilarious. The word hysterical comes from a similar sounding Greek word husterikós, which translates literally as ‘distressed womb’.
The Ancient Greeks in all their philosophical wisdom thought that female ‘hysteria’ came as a result of the womb floating around the body, in what has been called the ‘wandering womb’ theory.
We’re not really advising you stop using these words. If everybody’s all but forgotten where they originated from, then it doesn’t really matter how much you use them. But it’s always good to find out where words came from and exercise a little bit of caution. You don’t want to accidentally use a phrase descending from the slave trade whilst marketing to African American communities, for instance.
And if it’s this difficult to get right in English, think how hard it’s going to be in a completely different language with completely different social and civil liberty histories. That’s why it’s always a good idea to use the native speakers from professional language translation services like Bubbles who can get it right for you.