Hair Typhoons and Chicken

I am a big supporter of creative English, which is different from Engrish in that speakers of creative English know they’re probably wrong. Even though Japan’s proud displays of Engrish might make you think otherwise, a lot of people won’t attempt a foreign language at all if they aren’t 100% sure what they are saying is 100% correct. Mr. Hinata, with whom I teach middle school English, prefers this type of precision, but if a kid tells me his favorite movie is Beautiful Girl and Monster, I’m going to be proud of his English, even if that’s not exactly what we call Beauty and the Beast.

Sometimes creative English turns out to also be correct English. When one of my fourth-grade classes was learning words for animals, they were stumped as to the word for “chicken”. Synapses fired in one boy’s brain, and he connected living, breathing poultry with the Kentucky-fried variety available throughout Japan. He blurted out “chicken,” thinking he was being funny, but the class laughed even harder when I explained that yes, in fact this animal is called a “chicken”.

Sometimes the most creative English still fails to be understood. One day last year, I was chatting with the Student Council after school. The third-year representative, R-kun, was trying to explain a Japanese superstition about baldness to me. If a person had two of something, a bald-headed future was practically ensured. Exactly what that something was, however, took some effort to translate. R-kun first tried the Japanese word, to no avail because I do not study as diligently as my students do. Summoning his courage and memory of past English lessons, he pieced together a creative description for me: “hair typhoons”. Even though I now understood his words, I still couldn’t make sense of their meaning. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” as Chomsky would say. Eventually we had to consult a dictionary. By “hair typhoons”, R-kun meant “cowlick”. Looking back, it’s a perfect description, isn’t it?

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